Wednesday, 19 November 2008

St Monica's Governors - Natalie Haynes responds

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A couple of days ago we published an email from Dale Haslam, a reporter on the Bury Times who covered the story of St Monica's High School in Prestwich deciding not to give its female pupils the HPV vaccine (which protects against cervical cancer) back when it hit the news. Haslam argued that Natalie Haynes was wrong to nominate the school's governors for our Bad Faith Award because they took the decision for medical, not moral, reasons. Natalie begs to differ – here's her response:
Dale Haslam, Senior Reporter of the Bury Times, has complained that many people missed the point of his coverage of the St Monica’s School fiasco. Perhaps it’s easier to believe that than accept the much more plausible diagnosis – that most people understood his point quite clearly, then immediately disregarded it as eminently and evidently spurious.

He seems convinced that the school’s participation in a trial of the vaccine is a sign of their belief in its moral rectitude. This flies in the face of actual evidence from one of their governors, Monsignor Allen, who implied that the vaccination was, in essence, encouraging girls to be promiscuous: “Morally it seems to be a sticking-plaster response. Parents must consider the knock-on effect of encouraging sexual promiscuity. Instead of taking it for granted that teenagers will engage in sexual activity, we can offer a vision of a full life keeping yourself for a lifelong partnership in marriage.”

Mr Haslam suggests that the school could not possibly object to the vaccine on moral grounds "else why would it have allowed the trial?". Well, I can think of three reasons, off the top of my head.

One, the governing body might not have been consulted about the vaccine trial.

Two, the governing body might have changed some of its members since the trial was approved.

Three, and most cynically, the school might allow a trial it considered immoral for precisely the reason that it could then more legitimately refuse to administer the vaccine once the trial was over. Short term loss for long term gain. Trial girls obviously encouraged into a life of sexual promiscuity and degradation, but future generations saved for a "lifelong partnership in marriage".

He takes exception to my accusation of hypocrisy levelled at an organization that allows the TB jab but not the HPV one: "TB jabs have been used for decades and myriad research has been done into the side effects of them - that is not the case with the cervical cancer jab." Yes, quite. The TB jab is considered safe now, precisely because it has been used millions of times. Some people have adverse reactions to it, although not many, but the net gain is clearly worth the occasional side effects. If schools in the past had had the same attitude as St Monica’s, the TB jab might not have been used millions of times, and many more of us would have contracted TB. Thank goodness previous generations were more courageous, or perhaps less venal, than the current one.

He goes on to say, "If the school allowed the vaccine to be taken on school grounds, parents would carte blanche allow it and therefore, hold the school responsible should the worst happen (a child dies/becomes seriously ill due to a side effect and let's remember the school does not have access to the pupils' medical records, so even if it did know that the vaccine, for example, made autistic pupil seriously ill, it wouldn't even know which pupils were autistic)."

Now, let’s look at the argument here. Am I seriously intended to believe that parents of an autistic child, which Mr Haslam appears to believe would be especially vulnerable to contracting serious illness from a vaccine, would simply assume that if the school was conducting the vaccination programme, it was safe for their particular, prone-to-illness child? How ridiculous. Parents of chronically ill children are almost invariably conscious of potential hazards. They are hardly likely to take the school’s word for what is or isn’t appropriate for their child – they would speak to their GP. And school policy isn’t usually decided on what would be appropriate for one, unusual child: it’s decided on what is appropriate for most children. An autistic child will often require special provision – why should vaccinations be any different from school lunches or reading lessons?

He says "In that trial, staff saw side effects in some of its pupils, who either went home ill the same day, phoned in sick the following day or were excused from class while they vomited or felt light headed." The actual statistics for the trial give rise to the fiction here – the trials involved more than 100,000 girls, and the number of adverse reactions was so low, it was equivalent to 2.6 cases in every 100,000 doses. None of which had serious lasting effects. I suppose it’s possible that every single one of those (approximately) 3 sick girls was at St Monica’s, or that the girls there are somehow susceptible to side effects in a way that girls everywhere else aren’t. It is, however, a great deal more likely that someone is lying or mistaken. Either the staff are exaggerating what they saw, or the girls saw an excellent opportunity to have a day off. You’ve been a teenager – what do you think is likely?

He concludes, "It is not a moral argument". It is precisely that. Quite aside from the issue of women’s sexual health, this vaccine protects a group. Herd immunity relies on enough of us having jabs for illnesses we may never get to protect the few of us who don’t get the jab and might get the illness. When parents refused to get the MMR job for their children, they didn’t just endanger their own offspring, they endangered everyone who came into contact with them, including some children too young to receive the MMR jab yet themselves.

St Monica’s is the only school in the country to refuse to administer the HPV vaccine on its premises. So while it is possible that they are privy to special medical knowledge that the rest of us can only imagine, it seems much more likely that they are, in fact, wrong. What a pity their local press is too gutless or gullible to question them.
So, the debate goes on. Let us know what you think by replying to this post.

Update: Dale Haslam has replied to Natalie now – read it in the comments on this post


Pete said...

I would be genuinely interested to know how Dale Haslam, and the governing board of St Monica's High School, reconcile their reasoning with this fact:

"the trials involved more than 100,000 girls, and the number of adverse reactions was so low, it was equivalent to 2.6 cases in every 100,000 doses. None of which had serious lasting effects"

Doesn't this completely undermine the foundations of their case?

Sciolist said...

There're problems with Natalie's response. Her reasons for the board allowing the trial are all unlikely and I'd need evidence to support them - should be easy for the first two.

The TB response is wishful thinking: When TB vaccinations were introduced (30-40s in the UK?), the general public didn't know the risks as national vaccination programs were fairly new. Now they do, and they object. Tt's unreasonable to expect people to act against their own immediate interests just because it's arguably in their longterm interests. That isn't how people behave.

I agree Mr Haslan's autistic comment is pointless - perhaps he's trying to attract sympathy from those who fell for the press story that vaccines cause autism? Perhaps he even believes it himself?

The teenager/side-effect comment is strange - surely teenage girls everywhere skive, not just catholic schoolgirls? (Perhaps fewer in a catholic school as they're worried they'll burn forever if they hang out at the shopping centre.) The argument that someone is relying on anecdotal evidence or is simply making things up is a lot more compelling, but again, it should be easy to get evidence of this.

It's my experience that when people start complaining about grammar or spelling, they're more interested in arguing for the sake of it than because they want to have a debate. Given that Natalie nominated the school board, she may have felt she needs to defend herself.

Perhaps as a result, her argument isn't convincing, even if her desire to see cervical cancer vaccination is.

AT said...

Agreed that Dale's objection implodes in the face of the trial statistics. But Haynes's response is angry, unconsidered and occasionally rude; not the best way to engage with the opposition. Dale's an apologist for an apparently pig-headed decision, but at least his letter was reasonable and respectful.

Anonymous said...


thank you for your well-put reply.

Firstly, I'd like to point out that, at the time this matter came to light, our newspaper published a very balanced article, unlike other publications, which chose to go to print and publish online before giving the school an opportunity to reply. Far from being gutless or gullible, we spent a lot of time looking into the matter and gave both sides a say.

Secondly, I'd like to pick up on your point that parents of children - suffering from medical conditions or otherwise "are hardly likely to take the school’s word for what is or isn’t appropriate for their child – they would speak to their GP."


That is precisely what school staff wanted parents to do - seek medical advice from medical professionals.

They are simply saying that they feel uneasy about offering medical advice themselves.

I agree that the comments made by Monsignor Allen (at the time of the original trial) do cover moral points, but, having worked alongside the headteacher on many articles in the last few years, I trust his insistence that the school staff distance themselves from those comments.

Perhaps Monsignor Allen should be nominated for this award rather than the school.

Dale Haslam,
senior reporter,
Bury Times

Tom Rees said...

There is an international catholic campaign against HPV vaccination on the grounds that it reduces the risks associated with sex. There is one school in the UK that has opted out. It just happens to be Catholic. The official reasons they give are spurious (never mind the safety data, there is no way the school would or could be held accountable, because nobody supposes them to be public health experts), and are not shared by any other school.

Now, it could be that all this is an unfortunate coincidence. I hope so, because the alternative is that the school governors are lying about their motives.

Tom Rees said...

Dale, the school is not being asked to offer advice. They are being asked to offer a venue for delivery of a healthcare intervention that the experts believe offers excellent risk/benefit profile. They chose to reject expert advice, ostensibly because they know better! (Of course, we know that's not really why they rejected the advice...)

Nobbin said...

Okay, I am a bit confused about the school "allowing a trial" business because IIRC the original press releases seemed to imply that the trial actually took place at a local clinic and had nothing to do with the school...

Does anyone know the truth of the matter?

nobbin said...

Okay, this seems to be a bit of a knock-down argument. As much as I hate to link to the daily wail, see this article:

In their letter to parents the school wrote:

"When a pilot study was conducted in the local clinic during the last academic year..."

Local clinic... We knew there was a simple reason a trial took place... It had nothing to do with the school!

I stand by my vote for the governors in the bad faith awards...

jeremy said...

Another excellent piece from Ms Haynes. I'd hardly call it unconsidered, I think it comes across as extremely considered. Also I'd suggest that if she is angry then that is an entirely appropriate response to this unpleasant situation!
I read the highlights of Mr Haslam's deficiencies in grammar and spelling as mischievious but I don't think they impact negatively on what is a remarkable piece of debating. Vote for the governors!

ChicagoMolly said...

Maybe I missed this in the discussion, but did the school receive money from the government for conducting the trial?

AT said...

Haynes's piece is consistently off-point, suspicious and accusatory. That's not excellent in any way. Haslam's argument - that the school's governors shouldn't be in the running for the bad faith awards - has holes, but it's written in a way that respectfully encourages a discussion. As to the argument itself, I still think sciolist's arguments are best, better than Haslam's.

Nobbin said...

ChicagoMolly: It seems the school had nothing to do with the trial. See my previous post.