Cervical Cancer Vaccine for Israeli Schoolgirls Meets Religious Opposition

Parents aren't legally required to vaccinate their children and Health Ministry says it won't take steps against schools or parents who oppose it.

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The Health Ministry’s decision to vaccinate eighth-grade girls against human papillomavirus, which causes cervical cancer, as of this year has run into strong opposition from parts of the religious community.

The ultra-Orthodox daily Yated Neeman on Tuesday quoted Dr. Benny Chen, head of the obstetrics and gynecology department at Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center, as 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.

But the vaccine has also provoked strong objections from the religious Zionist community, as evident from the question the parents of one religious eighth-grader posed to Rabbi Baruch Efrati via the religious website Srugim. The parents said they had received a letter from their daughter’s school about the vaccine and, never having heard of it before, they had investigated the issue.

“We were shocked,” they wrote, “to discover that this is a vaccine against cervical cancer, which is caused (pardon our crudity) by having sex with several different men... Our shock was double: How does a religious girls’ school (one that’s well-regarded) think its girls would be so licentious? Additionally, isn’t there any supervision over what something like this might put into the girls’ heads?”

The parents said that under no circumstances would they allow their daughter to be vaccinated; their question was whether they should also try to influence other parents – for instance, by demanding that a parents’ assembly be convened on the issue. “Or perhaps it’s forbidden to prevent it, because there are some girls who might do who knows what afterward and stray from the path?” they added. “We and others in the community are debating it, and we’re waiting for guidance.”

In response, Efrati praised them for being “shocked by the immodesty inherent in this.”

“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,” he wrote. Moreover, he 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, 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 since the risk of developing cancer is small, even among the minority.

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 receiving the vaccine.

A senior Health Ministry official confirmed that several religious schools had written to protest against the vaccine. Since parents aren’t legally required to vaccinate their children, he said, the ministry won’t try to fight schools that refuse to allow vaccinations on their premises or parents who refuse to let their daughters receive the vaccine. He also stressed that the vaccine can’t be given against the parents’ will, since parents must sign a consent form.

Nevertheless, the ministry recommends the vaccine for all eighth-graders, even if cervical cancer is fairly rare in the religious community, the official said. Not only will vaccination 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 precancerous cervical growths that require additional testing and treatment, and which in some cases can even damage fertility.

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

The vaccine has been approved for use in 127 countries and is included in the regular vaccination programs of 46 countries. It has been certified as safe by three of the world’s leading health organizations, including the United States Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.

The Gardasil vaccine.Credit: Bloomberg

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