Vaccine for Eighth-grade Girls Against STD Virus? Haredim Say No

Vaccine against human papillomavirus given at relatively young age because its efficacy is higher when given before sexual maturity.

Ronny Linder
Ido Efrati
Education Minister Shay PironCredit: Emil Salman
Ronny Linder
Ido Efrati

The Health Ministry has given its support to a program of vaccinations for eighth-grade girls against human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer and is transmitted through sexual contact. But rabbis in the Haredi and national religious communities are fiercely opposed to the program, and this has stirred a deep controversy within the national religious community.

On the liberal side, Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, a religious Zionist movement that says it “seeks to return religious Zionism to its roots,” sent a harshly-worded letter yesterday to Education Minister Shay Piron and other senior ministry officials, calling for the heads of the state religious school system “to renounce in a decisive fashion these voices [against the vaccinations], which are based on ignorance, fear-mongering and border on medical irresponsibility toward the girls who will listen to them.” The movement also demanded “not to bring in ulterior motives when considering the medical need to prevent serious diseases, and not to hide important facts because of fears of ‘modesty.’” Whoever prevents the vaccine being given to girls "violates the [principle of the] holiness of life,” states the letter.

The vaccine against human papillomavirus was introduced into the regime of routine vaccinations at the beginning of this year and is given to girls in eighth grade, with their parents' consent. Among the reasons for adding the vaccine to the regular list of shots, the Health Ministry said it could prevent most of the approximately 200 cases of cervical cancer diagnosed in Israel each year, as well as the approximately 100 annual deaths, but it will also prevent over 5,000 cases a year of pre-cancerous cervical growths that require additional testing and treatment, and which in some cases can damage fertility.

The vaccine is given at the relatively young age because its efficacy is higher when given before the girls start having sexual relations.

The outraged opposition among rabbis to the vaccination stems from the fact that the virus is transmitted sexually, and the danger of infection rises directly in line with the number of sexual partners the woman has had. “There’s certainly no place for such a vaccination in a religious school, since it rests on the fundamental assumption that the girls are steeped in the sins of Western culture, in which girls give their bodies to men and don’t wait until the wedding,” wrote Rabbi Baruch Efrati via the religious website Srugim, in answer to a question from the parents of one religious eighth-grader. Efrati praised them for being “shocked by the immodesty inherent in this.”

Moreover, Efrati added, there was little risk of most religious girls contracting the virus, so there was no reason to make them risk the potential side effects of the vaccine, or to go through the unpleasantness of explaining about “sleeping with many men, [just] for the sake of that small percentage of girls who, heaven forbid, are liable to stumble by giving away their bodies” – especially, he noted, since the risk of developing cancer is small.

There is no religious prohibition on administering the vaccine in secular schools, where the danger of contracting HPV is greater, Efrati wrote. But, even then, parents are permitted to prevent their daughter from getting the vaccine.

Health Ministry: Won't force vaccine on anyone

The Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah letter was written by Dr. Einav Mayzlish Gati, a biologist and member of the movement’s leadership. She said the movement could no longer bury its head and say its daughters will never have sexual relations. All religious Zionist women have sexual relations with their husbands, and there are the situations of divorcees and widows and others to consider, she said, adding that it is impossible under the veil of modesty to forbid things that are purely medical. “Before I wrote the letter, I consulted with gynecologists and female doctors who told me the recommendation is to vaccinate, even in cases of a small number of partners," wrote Mayzlish Gati. "I read articles that said it is possible to be infected not just through sexual relations. So is someone willing to take that risk?”

The ultra-Orthodox daily Yated Ne'eman on Tuesday quoted Dr. Benny Chen, head of the obstetrics and gynecology department at Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center, saying that his 25 years of experience in the field had convinced him that cervical cancer was very rare in the religious community. His view was presented to leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis, the paper reported, who ruled that the vaccine shouldn’t be administered in the religious community at such a young age. “He who keeps the Torah, the Torah protects him,” wrote the paper.

The Health Ministry confirmed that several religious schools had written to protest against the vaccine. Since parents aren’t legally required to vaccinate their children, the ministry said it wouldn't force the program on schools that refuse to allow vaccinations on their premises, or parents who refuse to let their daughters receive the vaccine. The vaccine can’t be given against the parents’ will, since parents must sign a consent form, the ministry noted.

If a school doesn’t administer the vaccine, parents can vaccinate their daughters at their health maintenance organization or through a private doctor, said the Health Ministry.

The Education Ministry has yet to respond.