O ver the past three years, an entire cohort of schoolgirls in the UK has been on the front line of medical innovation. Following in the footsteps of their American and Australian peers, girls aged 12 and 13 years old, are being vaccinated against cervical cancer.
To me as a doctor, this is a glorious scientific advance. To me as a parent, this is a gift I would accept for my daughter with open arms.
One of the greatest advances in health-care in the past 100 years has been mass vaccination programmes. To be able to protect our children against life-threatening illnesses in a world where babies a few time zones away still die from diarrhoea is nothing short of a medical miracle. As if that wasn't enough, now we have the opportunity to vaccinate against cancer. That's right. The big C. A disease that is still the subject of huge fear and taboo, so much so, even doctors use euphemisms for it.
We have the chance to vaccinate our daughters against it. Not all cancers obviously, but the second most common cancer in women. So why are girls in the Jewish community being denied this life-saving opportunity?
The cervical cancer vaccine offers protection against a virus called HPV. This is thought to cause around 70 per cent of cervical cancers and giving the vaccine has been shown to protect against these HPV-associated cancers. It is unusual for the cause of a cancer to be so apparent and it is fortuitous that the viral protagonist has been so easily replicated for a vaccine. HPV is contracted from sexual contact: it is therefore true to say, the less sexual partners one has the less likely you are to contract it or the cancer it causes.
Of course the risks are low but they are not zero
As reported in last week's JC, new research has shown this to be the reason parents in the Orthodox community are opting out of the vaccination for their daughters: it is a sexually transmitted virus and therefore an unnecessary precaution.
In a community that preaches monogamy of course the risks are low but they are not zero. Given the chance, why would you not protect your child from even a small chance of a disaster? Even a one-in-a-million chance? Why take even the tiniest risk with her health? Because to do so would be to acknowledge the (albeit low) prevalence of sexually- transmitted infections in the Orthodox community and clearly this is a step too far for some.
We all have expectations and hopes of where our children will end up, and how their lives will be. These tend to be based on our own experiences and preconceptions, and have very little to do with the people our children are.
In the Orthodox world, these hopes are set in stone, cemented in the religious lifestyle. But even in that protective bubble, no one can 100 per cent say this is not for their daughter. Obviously promiscuity is much less likely but what if your daughter does not follow the path set out for her? Surely she still deserves the protection you could have offered her against one of life's natural disasters?
And then there are women who do stay true to their religious lifestyle but are victims of infidelity or rape. The very least these women deserve is protection from a cancer-causing virus transmitted from a promiscuous husband. A 48-year-old Orthodox patient of mine discovered this year her husband had not been faithful within their 25 year marriage. It was not him that broke the news. It was me: when I diagnosed her with clamydia. The life of purity people lead is not always what it seems to be.
Yes I recognise the risks in the Orthodox world are much smaller than in the secular population. But if you can prevent even that tiny likelihood, where the consequences can be so dire, it is surely worth it. So, while I'm not naive enough to expect the open discussion of sexual transgression or promiscuity, community acceptance of the vaccine is imperative.
It must be adopted as a standard vaccine that is routinely given to all girls in this country, which the vast majority of Orthodox girls will never have needed but were lucky enough to receive just in case. To deny young women this is, at the very least short-sighted, but at worst it is a tragedy.