More than a decade into a provincial public HPV vaccination program, there is strong evidence worldwide that the vaccine is safe and effective at preventing cancer. This fall, at the start of the school year, BC Cancer, BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), BC Women’s Hospital and the Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA) are reminding parents and kids about the importance of getting vaccinated during the pre-teen years to prevent cancer later in life.
“The 9-valent HPV vaccine protects against seven types of the virus that cause about 90 per cent of cervical cancers,” says Dr. Monika Naus, medical director of Communicable Diseases and Immunization Service for the BCCDC. “The vaccine helps to reduce cervical abnormalities, including those considered pre-cancerous and detected by Pap smear, protects against anal and some rare penile cancers as well as 90 per cent of genital warts. It also helps to prevent the spread of HPV infection to others.”
The HPV vaccination is part of B.C.’s publicly funded school vaccination program and is offered to both girls and boys in grade six. At this age, only two doses of the HPV vaccine are needed because it is most effective at generating an immune response prior to puberty. Beginning at age 15, adolescents need three doses for full protection.
The HPV vaccination rate for grade six girls in the 2016/17 school year was 66.5% per cent, which is lower than the 90% target rate, which has been achieved for vaccines like hepatitis B and meningococcal. Beginning in 2017, boys were added to the publicly-funded HPV vaccination program and uptake rates for the first year of the program will be published in October 2018.
“Most people will contract HPV at some point in their lives so it’s important to get the vaccine before you become sexually active” says Dr. Gina Ogilvie, Canada Research Chair in global control of HPV related cancer, assistant director at Women’s Health Research Institute and senior public health scientist at the BCCDC. “The vaccine provides the best protection when given prior to the onset of sexual activity because it prevents infection but it cannot clear infections that have already occurred.”
Though some people have raised concerns that the HPV vaccine encourages sexual promiscuity among young people, research from both Europe and Canada has shown that there is no change in sexual behaviour in populations that have had access to the HPV vaccine.
“Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV,” says Dr. John Spinelli, vice president of Population Oncology with BC Cancer. “In 2018 it is estimated that 200 people will be diagnosed with cervical cancer and 50 people will die from the disease in B.C. We know that the HPV vaccine will help reduce the number of people diagnosed with cervical cancer.”
The cervix is part of the uterus in the female reproductive system. Women and transgender, non-gender and non-binary individuals who have cervices should be screened regularly for cervical cancer even if they have been immunized.
Most people diagnosed with cervical cancer are between the ages of 30 and 60. All people with a cervix who have ever been sexually active are at risk of the disease.
Cervical cancer can be prevented when abnormal cells are found and treated early through regular Pap testing. When abnormal cells are removed before cancer develops the cure rate is 100 per cent. People between the ages of 25 to 69 should be screened for cervical cancer every three years.
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