Tens of thousands of children across New Zealand have been denied access to a vaccine that protects against a cancer-causing sexually transmitted infection after their schools opted out of the DHB run programme.
The Gardasil vaccine protects against human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection that can cause throat, anal and cervical cancer.
Information published by NZ Doctor found that in 2021, in New Zealand, 53,000 fewer vaccines were delivered than in 2019.
"The total reduction in doses over two years has been approximately 78,000 – that’s more than 30,000 young New Zealanders who have missed out," the report reads.
But, while the bulk of this lower figure was due to disruptions caused by the pandemic, an investigation by 1News found that in 2021, dozens of schools voluntarily opted out of the DHB-funded in-school immunisation programme.
The Gardasil vaccine is fully funded for those aged between 9-26, and since 2008, DHBs nationwide have provided a free in-school immunisation programme for years seven and eight.
1News has spoken to a handful of women, who report that the Gardasil vaccine was never offered to them at their school since the programme started in 2008.
1News lodged Official Information Act requests to determine which schools provided student access to the fully-funded vaccine programme.
In 2021, 44 schools did not take part.
Most of the schools that opted out of the programme had a Christian religious affiliation.
The schools refused to provide comment when approached by 1News.
Director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre, Dr Nikki Turner, says the lack of in-school access has likely contributed to the drop in the number of young people vaccinated for HPV.
“It’s much harder for these young people to access vaccines elsewhere so the coverage rates drop off,” says Turner.
“It is important to give it to young people aged around 11, 12, 13 because it is most effective in this age group.”
In 2021, as vaccination numbers dropped due to the pandemic, members of a PHARMAC immunisation subcommittee stated that the failure of the HPV school-based programme in New Zealand may contravene the United Nations Convention on the rights of the child.
Turner, who was a member of the subcommittee, says “every young people deserves two important rights, firstly to clear evidence-based material to look after their own health and secondly to ease of access to services”.
"[It] is heartbreaking that we will see people who turn up in later years with cervical cancer that did not know it was preventable.”
Northland Doctor, Gary Payinda, has written an open letter to Parliament pushing for mandatory school participation in the immunisation programme.
“We know that 80% of us are going to get exposed to HPV in our lifetime, we know that if you are a teenager, we can prevent literally thousands of cases of cancer," says Payinda.
"We want to try to reduce cancer deaths in New Zealand in the coming years and we're not going to get there if we put up roadblocks to HPV vaccination.”
He says religious affiliation should not give schools the right to deny their students preventative healthcare.
“It's unconscionable that they'd be doing this in this day and age and completely unacceptable that they'd be getting taxpayer money to stand in the way of cancer prevention,” says Payinda.
But the spokesperson for the Association of Proprietors of Integrated Schools, Kevin Shore, disagrees.
“State integrated schools are effectively state schools but with a special character.
"The proprietor has the right under the integration act to promote the beliefs of that special character,” says Shore.
This can extend to health measures that prevent the sexual transmission of diseases.
“Some people will see that choosing to go into an intimate relationship is nothing to do with a communicable disease but is a behaviour of choice," he says.
"Some religions might see that by actually supporting the vaccine that they might be encouraging promiscuity.”
Shore, a member New Zealand Catholic Education Office, says the Catholic church does not hold this view.
“The church has looked at this very closely the link between supporting the vaccine and encouraging students into promiscuous behaviour.
"We don’t believe there’s a strong link between a 12-year-old getting a vaccine and promoting them into that behaviour,” he says.