British Columbia

B.C. extends free HPV vaccinations to Grade 6 boys

B.C. will begin providing free HPV vaccinations to Grade 6 boys starting in September, 2017.

The vaccine will be provided as part of regular school-based, publicly-funded immunization clinics

The HPV vaccination will be provided to Grade 6 boys as part of the province's publicly-funded school immunization program. (CBC)

B.C. will begin providing the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination to Grade 6 boys beginning in September 2017.

The vaccine will be provided as part of the regular school-based, publicly funded immunization clinics. Two doses will be given at least six months apart, as it is to Grade 6 girls.

Health Minister Terry Lake announced the extension of the program, saying the move is to improve protection against a range of HPV-caused cancers that affect both men and women.

"We've targeted the program to Grade 6 girls and now Grade 6 boys to better promote the broad coverage needed for effective herd immunity," he said in a statement.

"The HPV vaccine is most effective when administered before a child is first exposed to the virus and will help protect them from HPV-related cancers and other serious health problems." 

The school immunization program will use the Gardasil 9 vaccine, which provides protection against nine types of HPV. 

Not a woman-only concern

HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections, with three out of four sexually active people contracting the virus at some point in their lives.

Often HPV infections will clear on their own and most don't show any symptoms but can pass the virus on to others unknowingly.

In other cases, cells infected with the virus can become cancerous over time or cause genital warts.

Perry Kendall, B.C.'s provincial health officer, said that even though the most common cancer caused by HPV is cervical, the virus should be a concern for both men and woman.

"Your son can pick up HPV from a woman who isn't vaccinated and pass it on to another woman. While most people will clear HPV, some will go on to develop throat cancer, rectal cancers, as well as genital warts, which are quite unpleasant," he said.

Six Canadian provinces have already expanded their HPV immunization plans to include boys. (Joe Raedle/Getty)

Monika Naus, medical director of immunization programs and preventable diseases at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, applauded the move.

"I think it's a very positive move. A lot of people have been waiting for this for awhile," she said.

"The advantage of vaccinating men is that they will be protected directly and will be less dependent on the actions of others for their own health."

B.C.'s previous policy was based on the concept of herd immunity, with the hopes that by vaccinating Grade 6 girls, boys would be less likely to develop and pass on the virus.

In 2015, B.C. extended its immunization program to include boys and men up to age 26 who were considered to be at a higher risk of contracting the virus.

Removing the stigma

Kendall said he hopes the extension of the program will alleviate some of the stigma associated with the vaccine.

"In some areas, there has unfortunately been religious opposition believing that somehow vaccinating young girls against sexually transmitted diseases would be tacit approval of early onset sexual behaviour," he said.

"It's nonsense. It doesn't happen. But that was a concern that was being expressed."

Naus agreed that the expansion of the program may have a normalizing effect.

"I think a gender-neutral program will remove some of the stigma girls or parents may feel."

While HPV can be detected through a standard Pap smear, there is no routine program for screening pre-cancerous HPV lesions in men.

With this move, B.C. will join six provinces — Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and P.E.I. — that already provide the HPV vaccination to boys.