As New Brunswick prepares to inoculate residents against swine flu, another public health program is falling by the wayside. Hundreds of health care workers, from nursing students to retirees, are being recruited to administer the H1N1 vaccine—meaning the HPV vaccine must be put on hold. This year, about 2,500 Grade 7 girls will not receive a shot to protect them from the human papilloma virus, which can cause genital warts and cervical cancer.
According to the “Canadian Cancer Statistics” report, about seven Canadians per 100,000 were diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2005, the most recent year for which data is available. Thanks to the HPV vaccine, “it’s the first genital cancer that’s preventable,” says Dr. André Lalonde, executive vice-president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada. As such, he notes, “it’s a major breakthrough in health.”
In New Brunswick, girls who were scheduled to get the vaccine this year will still get it, emphasizes Dr. Paul van Buynder, the province’s deputy chief medical officer of health, but it will be one year late: next year, both Grade 7 and Grade 8 girls will be vaccinated. Provincial officials, he says, had to determine “which programs could safely be deferred.” (New Brunswick isn’t alone; in Ontario, for example, some public health units are delaying HPV vaccination to focus on swine flu.)
Cécile Bensimon, a bioethicist with the University of Toronto’s Joint Centre for Bioethics, calls it “triage on a larger scale.” While delaying the HPV shot might put some young girls at risk (likely not many, since most aren’t sexually active in Grade 7), the decision must be made from a “population-based perspective,” she says. As an example, she notes that during the SARS crisis, procedures like elective surgeries were temporarily put on hold—for the greater good.