The HPV vaccine has been readily available for girls across the country through school-based programs. Now, some provinces are pushing for boys to get it too. Here’s why.

By June Yee

MEGHAN M. was surprised when the older of her two sons, 11-year-old Alex, came home from school with a consent form required for him to be given the vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV). “I considered it more of a girls’ issue,” says the Winnipeg-based mom. As a pharmacist working in critical care and a mother of two boys, she says the idea of the HPV vaccine for her son gave her pause. “I did give this one some thought though…because the kind of cancer being talked about didn’t seem that prevalent to me.”

While she was quick to research and learn more about the topic, Meghan’s initial thoughts about HPV vaccination and boys are not unique. Over the years, since the federal government announced specific funding for implementing HPV immunization programs in 2007, all provinces and territories have made the vaccine widely available to girls through a school-based program.

GIVING BOYS A SHOT
The story is different when it comes to boys. In September 2016, Manitoba and Ontario became the latest jurisdictions in Canada to offer the HPV vaccine to boys through publicly funded school-based programs. Still, as of November 2016, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan and the territories have yet to expand school-based HPV immunization to include boys.

“There’s miseducation specifically around boys…not realizing that boys have to get this [vaccine] not just to protect girls but to protect themselves,” says Heather Kun, executive director of the U.S.-based cancer prevention, detection, and support group FCancer. Among the “Myths about HPV” flagged by the organization as part of its recently launched “Not Us” campaign to raise awareness about vaccines to prevent HPV infections and screening to prevent HPV-associated cancers is that “only girls get HPV so boys don’t have to get the vaccine.”

Kun says another key in the campaign to help decrease HPV prevalence is “changing the perception that this is a vaccine that’s permissive to sex, but rather this is a disease that’s permissive to cancer.”

FCancer will soon introduce a petition in the U.S. toward mandatory vaccination for children entering Grade 7. “While we realize this may not be the
most realistic thing, we think it will start that conversation and get legislators talking about it and get people thinking about it,” says Kun. “I do think in the next 10 years it will become mandated.”

CANADIANS AND HPV CANCERS
The urgency to increase the uptake of the HPV vaccine is understandable. Statistics released by the Canadian Cancer Society in October show, for the first time, how many Canadians are being affected by HPV cancers: more than 4,000 Canadians will be diagnosed with an HPV cancer and roughly 1,200 Canadians will die from an HPV cancer in 2016. Furthermore, the incidence of HPV mouth and throat cancers increased by 56 per cent among men and 17 per cent among women between 1992 and 2012.

MAKING THE DECISION
For her part, Meghan M. advises parents who are facing a decision about vaccination for their children to look to the good research that’s available. “I’m pro-vaccination from a public health standpoint, and when I understood more about transmission, when I understood more about the consequences, I would not hesitate to do it for my son and, if anyone asked me, to suggest that they do the same.” ■

HPV FACTS

HPV infection is the most common sexually transmitted disease in Canada and the world.
• While most infections clear within two years and cause no physical symptoms, some infections will lead to cancer.
• Safe sex alone will not fully protect individuals from getting HPV.
• There are more than 100 different types of HPV and around 25 types are known or suspected to cause cancer.
• 1 in 3 HPV cancers occur in males.
• The vaccine can prevent HPV cancers in males and females.
• The vaccine works best when given between the ages nine to 15, before the onset of sexual activity, but is approved for use in women ages nine to 45 and men ages nine to 26.
SOURCE: CANADIAN CANCER SOCIETY