Eligibility for free HPV vaccine expands, but is it enough?

Courtney Dickson, Wellness Columnist Ω

In 2008, the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) began providing the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine to girls in grade six at no cost, hoping to decrease future cases of cervical cancer. This program expanded to girls in grade nine, and last year a vaccine became available for women born in 1991, 1992 and 1993. This program has just recently expanded once again so that women up to age 26 qualify for the free HPV vaccine.

Courtney Dickson, Arts & Entertainment Editor Ω

Courtney Dickson, Wellness Columnist Ω

HPV is so common that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S. says that nearly every sexually active male and female will contract the virus at some point during their lives, whether they are aware of it or not.

The expansion of the free vaccine program in B.C. is great for a couple of reasons:

HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer and the most common sexually transmitted infection, according to the CDC. The fact that such a prominent disease is preventable, and that the BCCDC is giving that method of prevention away is pretty great, really.

The typical age group for university students (18 to 26) is perhaps the most vulnerable to HPV. According to a study done by the Public Health Agency of Canada, HPV is most prevalent in people 25 years of age and under. In January 2010 a study was published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases, showing 56 per cent of university-aged people in a new sexual relationship tested positive for HPV.

Though this expansion of an important program is of course a positive one, there is another group of people who need to be eligible for this vaccine: males. Though men don’t run the risk of developing cervical cancer caused by HPV, they can still be carriers of the virus, which puts their partners at risk. Though it’s not as common, HPV has also been linked to cancers men can get, including genital cancer and oropharyngeal cancer (cancer at the back of the throat). Also, genital warts caused by HPV can affect both sexes, so it wouldn’t be a bad thing for males to get in on these free vaccines.

There are two HPV vaccines in Canada: Gardasil and Cervarix. B.C. is providing Cervarix to its female residents, which is the vaccine that protects against two strains of the virus. Gardasil, which is not being offered for free, protects against four strains of the virus, including the strain that causes genital warts.

Cervarix has not been approved for males in Canada, however Gardasil has.

For those hesitant about receiving the vaccine, there are other methods of prevention (not elimination) against the virus. The CDC says the use of condoms during any sexual activity may lower the risk of contracting HPV, therefore also lowering the risk of health problems caused by HPV. The CDC also recommends that people limit the number of sexual partners they have in order to lower the risk of contracting the virus.

Though getting the vaccine does not eradicate the chances of catching HPV, it significantly decreases the possibility. Those who are eligible for the free vaccination should be a least consider going to see a doctor about getting a prescription, if not to protect themselves, to protect others.