Ministers went ahead with the programme to vaccinate schoolgirls against cervical cancer despite government-funded research concluding that parents were widely opposed to the move, with many fearing it would give their daughters a licence to be promiscuous.
Schools across the United Kingdom last week began offering all 12- and 13-year-old girls the vaccine against the human papilloma virus (HPV), blamed for causing 70 per cent of incidences of cervical cancer. Scottish schoolgirls last week became the first in the UK to be vaccinated. Pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will follow in the coming weeks.
The multimillion-pound campaign against HPV, which is spread by sexual contact, is believed to be the biggest public-health programme ever launched in this country.
But an internal research study obtained by The Independent on Sunday reveals the extent of parental resistance to the vaccine. Parents rejected the suggestion that their daughters should be able to consent to having the vaccine without the permission or even the knowledge of their parents.
The HPV Parental Attitudes Survey, carried out in England and Wales on behalf of the Department of Health (DoH), also revealed that many young people themselves predicted that the jab could lead to increased promiscuity.
"There is a danger that girls will be lulled into a false sense of security and imagine that they can engage in sexual activity without any serious risk to their health," said Norman Wells, director of the Family Education Trust. "Giving the vaccination to girls without the consent of their parents is unethical and a recipe for disaster. It is sending out the message that girls under 16 have a right to a private sex life and treating with contempt the protection given by the age of consent."
The survey, carried out among scores of parents, children and health workers through questionnaires and focus groups, found that many parents feared that vaccinating 11-to 12-year-old girls against cervical cancer would give their daughters "a licence to engage in underage and unprotected sex".
It added: "A good number of young people felt that the vaccine might lead to increased promiscuity, but felt that it was more likely that the vaccine could promote unsafe sex practices."
The DoH insisted that parents' views had been taken into consideration. A spokeswoman said the programme would help to protect girls and young women against cervical cancer – and prevent up to 400 deaths per year. She added: "The research helped to gauge levels of awareness and understanding of HPV and the vaccine among girls and their parents. We were better prepared to help address issues and concerns that parents had."
Professor Steve Field of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) said: "The evidence is clear that this is an extremely effective way of preventing cervical cancer and no way will it lead to an increase in promiscuity in young girls. I want my own daughters to have the vaccine."
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