Canada’s provinces and territories all provide funding for adolescent girls to receive the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine, and a national panel has now recommended extending the vaccination program to include boys.
What is HPV?
There are over 100 types of human papillomavirus, which are identified using number designations, such as HPV-6. The virus can affect numerous parts of the body. The Public Health Agency of Canada explains, “Some types of HPV are sexually transmitted and can cause warts or other consequences such as cancer (e.g., cervical, penile and anal). The types of HPV that infect the anal and genital (anogenital) areas are not the same as the ones that infect other areas of the body such as the fingers, hands and face. The types which cause anogenital warts do not usually cause cancer.”
HPV vaccine for boys
Recently, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization came out with a recommendation that the HPV vaccine, Gardasil, be used to protect males ages 9 – 26 against genital warts, pre-cancerous lesions and anal cancer. In a statement, Dr. Franziska Baltzer of Montreal Children’s Hospital said, “Both genders contribute to the spread of HPV and develop diseases as a result of HPV infection. To eliminate those diseases, we need to vaccinate males as well as females.”
Each province and territory will have to individually determine the feasibility of funding the administration of the HPV vaccine for boys. The rate of sexually transmitted diseases is going up in Prince Edward Island, which provides the vaccine to girls in grade six, so they are considering the committee’s recommendation. Dr. Heather Morrison, who is the province’s chief health officer, told CBC News, “We are really encouraged to see the NACI statement come out recommending that also boys be vaccinated. So we will be definitely looking at what we are going to do in terms of offering it to boys as well.”
To vaccinate or not?
The Public Health Agency of Canada maintains that the HPV vaccine is safe and effective in providing protection against four HPV types: two that cause approximately 70 per cent of all cervical cancers (HPV-16, HPV-18) and two that cause approximately 90 per cent of all anogenital warts in males and females (HPV-6, HPV-11). It is given in 3 doses over a six-month period.
Some opponents of the movement to have adolescents vaccinated against HPV believe vaccines aren’t safe in general, and view the push to vaccinate as a campaign by pharmaceutical companies to make money. There are also those who feel that doling out the HPV vaccine to adolescents is akin to promoting or condoning sexual promiscuity. Still others view it as unnecessary, particularly for those in low-risk groups, arguing that cervical cancer is fatal in a very small percentage of Canadian women, and that regular pap tests are sufficient to detect and prevent the cancer.
The Canadian Cancer Society warns against viewing the HPV vaccine as blanket protection against the virus, since 30 per cent of cervical cancers are from HPV types not covered by the vaccines. They state, “All women regardless of whether they’ve had the HPV vaccine need to continue being screened for cervical cancer…HPV vaccines should be viewed as a complement to cervical cancer screening–they do not replace it.”