Dubai: Administering cervical cancer vaccine to schoolgirls in Dubai and northern emirates is optional, a top official said on Tuesday.

Dr Hussain Abdul Rahman Al Rand, Assistant Undersecretary for Health Centres and Clinics at the Ministry of Health And Prevention, clarified that the Human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine that protects against cervical cancer is not mandatory in Dubai and the northern emirates. The clarification followed reports in a section of the media that the vaccine had been made compulsory for schoolgirls in these emirates.

“The vaccine remains optional. However, it’s part of the National Immunisation Programme,” Dr Al Rand told Gulf News.

HPV vaccine is already included in the immunisation schedule of grade 11 school girls in Abu Dhabi.

Some parents expressed apprehension over the universal need and efficacy of the HPV vaccine, which has long been a subject of controversy globally.

Much of the parents’ concerns also revolve round the question of administering the vaccine to girls as young as 12 and 13, with possible moral implications.

“There are so many issues surrounding the need for the cervical cancer vaccine and its potential side-effects like pain, fever headache, even blood clots and seizures. I believe we must allow our kids to build immunity naturally,” said a Dubai-based mother of a 14-year-old girl.

“I would not want my daughter to get the jab. It’s a very touchy matter,” said the mother of another girl, 16.

“HPV is a sexually transmitted disease. Why give it to young girls who have no such exposure?” asked another mother, who did not want to be identified.

Doctors, however, said parents’ fears are misplaced.

Dr Karim Al Marsy, gynaecological oncologist at Mediclinic City Hospital, said: “Both the World Health Organisation and Centre for Disease Control state that the vaccination is ‘extremely safe’. I have a 13-year-old daughter and she will be vaccinated soon.”

Dr Al Marsy added: “I see an average of 20 women with HPV-related diseases every week. On an annual basis, HPV-related cancers represent nearly 9 per cent of all new cancers in females.”

Dr Heena Zarin, specialist gynaecologist at Aster Clinic, Al Nahda, Sharjah, said: “Cervical cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer in the UAE, but more than 90 per cent of cases can be prevented if the vaccine is taken in time.”

Dr Mamatha Gandal, specialist obstetrician and gynaecologist at Amber Clinics, Al Ghusais, said: “HPV is a common infection. It comprises a family of 120 viruses and can show up in 8 out of 10 females without any symptoms. The HPV vaccines are necessary because they provide immunity against the high-risk cancer-related viruses and other HPV strains too.”

Not all parents are convinced though. “I’ve read many reports of the vaccine’s side effects and its lack of effectiveness if someone already has a HPV infection,” said a father.

“Pain in the area where the vaccine is given is the most common side-effect. This can be easily managed,” Dr Gandal said.

Dr Al Marsy said the maximum benefit of the vaccine is for those who are not exposed to HPV. “Even if a woman has an HPV infection, the vaccine can protect against other sub-types,” he added.

On some parents’ fears that the vaccine could lead to promiscuity among young girls, he said: “This discussion has been going on across the world for many years, but studies have shown that such views are unfounded.”

What parents want to know

Do all girls need the vaccine?

Why at such a young age?

What about safety?

How effective is the vaccine if one already has a HPV infection?

Will there be any moral implications?