British Columbia is expanding its HPV vaccination program in an attempt to reduce young women’s chances of getting cervical cancer.
The human papillomavirus is sexually transmitted, kills one Canadian woman every day on average and statistics show that three out of four sexually active women will get HPV at some point in their lives.
B.C. is thought to be the first province to expand its program, offering a free vaccine to women up to 26 years old.
Dr. Monika Naus, medical director of the immunization service at the BC Centre for Disease Control, said while the vaccine prevents about 70 per cent of all cervical cancers, it’s 100-per-cent effective in stopping those cancers.
“In my mind, that’s a huge boon. Because every time I go for a Pap smear, I’m always worried about what kind of result I’m going to get back,” Naus said. “I think all women are probably concerned about having a normal Pap result. This is a disease we try to prevent across a lifetime.”
The B.C. program began in 2008 with girls in Grade 6, then expanded to Grade 9 girls and last year women between the ages of 19 and 21 were offered free vaccinations. The vaccines cost about $400.
While about 70 per cent of the girls in high school were vaccinated, Naus said the results weren’t as successful for women aged 19 to 21, so they’ve decided to expand the vaccine offered to the older women.
Two different vaccines are licensed for use in Canada and they protect against two different types of the virus and two types of HPV that cause genital warts.
While many young women up to age 26 are likely sexually active, Naus said there is still an advantage in getting vaccinated.
“I think it is recognized that even though it’s quite common to get infected after one or two sexual partners, it’s not necessary common to be infected by all … four strains of the cancers preventable by vaccines.”
The vaccine is given in a series of three shots and is available through a family doctor, a B.C. pharmacist who’s been certified to immunize, though public health clinics and university campus health clinics.
Prince Edward Island announced earlier this year that it would be expanding its vaccination program to boys in Grade 6.
Naus said the cost benefit for a boys’ program in B.C. hasn’t yet been proven.
“I think all provinces and territories, including British Columbia, are very interested in expanding the programs at the right price. And I think the challenge is that this virus does not cause nearly the burden of illness in boys as it does in women.”
But Naus said a study in Australia, where women up to their 20s were vaccinated, has shown a reduction in HPV in young men as well.
“The very good thing about many vaccine-preventable diseases is that if you reach a high enough proportion of your target population, you will protect individuals who are not vaccinated as well.”
A study released earlier this year from the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer said the cervical cancer vaccine also appears to protect women against throat cancer caused by performing oral sex and would likely offer the same protection to men.
In June, American actor Michael Douglas told a newspaper that his throat cancer was linked to performing oral sex.