British Columbia

HPV vaccine cuts rates of cervical pre-cancer by 57% in B.C. women

HPV is a common sexually transmitted disease and can lead to fatal cancers. The province implemented a school-based immunization program for girls in 2008. 

Province says a third of eligible students have not been fully immunized against the disease

B.C. introduced the HPV vaccine for school-aged girls in Grade 6 and older in 2008 and for boys the same age in 2017. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

A new study shows B.C. women who took part in the province's HPV immunization program in the past 12 years have had a 57 per cent drop in the incidence of cervical pre-cancer cells compared to unvaccinated women.

HPV, known formally as human papillomavirus, is a common sexually transmitted disease that most people will get in their lives and can lead to fatal cancers. The province implemented a school-based immunization program for girls in 2008.  

"This study reinforces the tremendous importance of school-based immunization programs in our province," said Education Minister Rob Fleming in a written statement. 

According to the statement, HPV causes almost all cervical cancers. It can also cause anal and some rare penile cancers. 

The HPV vaccine was first offered free to all school-age girls Grade 6 and up and was extended to boys of the same age in 2017. In order to be effective, the vaccine must be given before the onset of sexual activity.

According to Monika Naus, medical director for the communicable diseases and immunization service at the BC Centre for Disease Control, the vaccine prevents infection but will not help if a person already has HPV.

"Even if you feel they are too young to have sex, of course they are too young to have sex, that's why they are being vaccinated, so when they do enter their sexually active years they already have protection on board," said Naus in an interview withCBC's On The Island Thursday.

Naus said it is "virtually guaranteed" that anyone who becomes sexually active will be infected by HPV.

'Growing body of evidence'

The study was conducted by researchers at BC Cancer, the BC Centre for Disease Control, B.C. Women's Hospital & Health Centre and the University of British Columbia.

It followed women who received the vaccine and linked to immunization records from the province's cervix screening program. 

"We are excited by these initial findings," said Dr. Gina Ogilvie, professor at the University of British Columbia's School of Population and Public Health.

"This study contributes to the growing body of evidence highlighting the positive impact of the HPV vaccine," said Ogilvie.

The vaccine used in 2008 protected against two types of HPV responsible for 70 per cent of all cervical cancers. Rates of cervical cancer are expected to drop even more in the upcoming years, according to the province, because today's vaccine is more comprehensive. 

Naus said the vaccine also protects against genital warts, rates of which have also been reduced in B.C.

The province says 200 women will get cervical cancer in B.C., and 50 of them will die of it. Women who have been vaccinated still need to get a regular pap test to screen for pre-cancerous cells.

It also says a third of students eligible for the vaccine in B.C. have not been fully immunized against HPV. 

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix has been pushing for more immunization in the province, especially in the wake of increased cases of measles

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