Manitoba's health department will soon release the details of one the largest immunization programs it has ever implemented: vaccinating girls against HPV.

Manitoba will spend $10 million over the next three years on a program to distribute the vaccine, which protects against four common strains of human papillomavirus, a sexually-transmitted virus that has been linked with cervical cancer in later life.

"We're aiming to get needles in arms … within the next year," said Dr. Tim Hilderman, spokesman for the province's program.

Manitoba is looking at abiding by national guidelines for its voluntary vaccination program, which could mean offering the vaccine through schools to girls in grades 4 through 8. There are about 40,000 girls in that age range in Manitoba, according to Statistics Canada.

"This will be one of the most expensive vaccines that we've ever implemented," Hilderman acknowledged, but said it will save the lives of Manitoba women.

"When you have a vaccine that can stop or prevent the infection from occurring in the first place, we have a responsibility to make sure that we use it and use it appropriately."

'No urgency': health advocate

However, not everyone agrees that the vaccination program is a good idea.  Madeline Boscoe, a health advocate at Winnipeg's Women's Health Clinic, said not enough is known about the long-term effects of the vaccine.

"There's no urgency," she said.  "We're doing a great job … [cervical cancer] has plummeted because of public health — that is, people coming in for sexual and reproductive health care."

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A course of the vaccine Gardasil, developed by Merck Frosst Canada Ltd., costs $404. ((Harry Cabluck/Associated Press))

Last year, 45 women in Manitoba were diagnosed with cervical cancer.  Fifteen died.

"Those are tiny, tiny numbers," she said, noting that lung cancer and heart disease are much bigger health threats.

"This ties into other kinds of sexual health issues. We need to be making sure we're doing outreach to the people who really carry the burden of risk for this condition, which are people who are not in the health-care system in a normal way, and that's really about race and class, like everything to do with health care, unfortunately."

In January 2007, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommended Canadian girls aged nine to 13 who have not yet become sexually active should be immunized with the HPV vaccine, called Gardasil.

The committee said females aged 14 to 26 should also be vaccinated, even if they are already sexually active or have had previous Pap smear abnormalities or a previous HPV infection. However, Gardasil is not recommended for girls under age nine, for males or for pregnant women.

HPV is among the most common sexually-transmitted infections in Canada with estimates suggesting about 75 per cent of women will have at least one HPV infection in their lifetime.

Gardasil has been shown to prevent certain strains of human papillomavirus that are responsible for 70 per cent of cervical cancer cases in Canada.

Until the vaccination program comes into force, Manitobans can obtain the vaccine through their physicians, but have to pay the cost themselves.