The first week of October is HPV Prevention Week in Canada. This is the second year that we are dedicating a week to HPV prevention and education, an area in which Canada is a global leader.
The human papilloma virus causes cervical cancer in more than 99 per cent of cases. It also causes the majority of anal cancers, as well as other genital cancers and head and neck cancer. What’s so exciting is that we have a vaccine that can prevent these cancers. The vaccine has been on the market in this country for more than 10 years and we now offer it to all school-aged boys and girls throughout the country. Canada is only the second country in the world to offer it to children of all genders, supported and paid for by the public health system.
Despite the fact that the vaccine is offered free of charge to all Canadian youth, that it has a fabulous track record of more than 60-million doses worldwide and that it has been endorsed by major public health organizations (such as Health Canada, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization), some people are still hesitant to take it.
We know that when people are younger, their immune system is more robust, meaning that they gain a long-term immunity to the disease after two doses, rather than three, which saves time and money. But what about older adults? Do we need to be vaccinated against HPV? Quite frankly, we do.
The risk of HPV and cancer does not simply go away when we reach a given age. As long as you are exposed, such as in the case of having a new sexual partner, you are at risk. And given our longevity and likelihood of intimacy into our senior years, a new partner is a realistic possibility for a lot of people. By getting immunized, we can protect ourselves and our partners. So let’s educate ourselves, our partners, our children and our friends.
The Federation of Medical Women of Canada, an organization that has been promoting women’s health and female doctors for 94 years, has partnered with the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada and others, with a grant from Merck Canada, to talk, and teach, about HPV. This is an effort that I’m involved in and we are spreading the word on Parliament Hill, through social media and on TV.
Some vaccines – such as the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine – prevent an infection. These are serious diseases and can cause death and disability. However, with the HPV vaccine, we actually prevent some forms of cancer. This is astounding, because in Canada today, we still have about 1,250 HPV-related deaths per year, including about 360 from cervical cancer. That’s nearly a death a day from cervical cancer, and most of them are women in the prime of their lives who are dying from a preventable disease. While the number of cases are higher in younger women, the mortality rate goes up with age and we are seeing a spike in cases in people in their 70s.
Let’s talk about it. Let’s tweet about it. Let’s teach about it. Let’s take a shot at HPV.