Vaccine-hesitant parents should view HPV shot as preventing cancer not just STI, say experts

Infectious disease experts are urging Alberta parents to allow their kids to receive the HPV vaccine which they say should be viewed more as a vaccine against certain cancers, than against the sexually transmitted virus.

Vaccine is up to 99% effective at preventing HPV-related disease

Experts are hoping to raise Alberta's HPV vaccination rate to 90 per cent. (CBC)

Infectious disease experts are urging parents to allow their kids to receive the HPV vaccine, which they say should be viewed more as a vaccine against certain cancers than against the sexually transmitted virus.

HPV, or the human papillomavirus, can lead to multiple forms of cancer, including the majority of cervical and vaginal cancers that have a high global mortality rate.

This is, in fact, our vaccine for cancer right now.- Craig Jenne , U of C infectious disease expert

The vaccine is up to 99 per cent effective at preventing HPV-related disease.

"We're not talking about chicken pox. We're not talking about measles. We're talking about a lethal cancer and we're blocking about 80 to 90 per cent of this lethal cancer with something as simple as a vaccine in Grade 6," says Craig Jenne, an associate professor of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary.

"Whenever we talk about vaccines or even cancer treatments, people always go, 'Well, when are we gonna have a vaccine for cancer?' Well this is, in fact, our vaccine for cancer right now."

Last year roughly 67 per cent of Alberta kids received their three doses in Grade 5. In September, the immunization schedule will change to two doses in Grade 6. It's also offered to students in Grades 7 and 9 who missed getting their shot earlier.

Jenne said that number is promising, but "obviously we can do better."

He said one of the ramifications of a successful vaccine is the disease no longer becomes something people fear enough to feel the need to get vaccinated. 

Vaccine hesitancy has been listed by the World Health Organization as one of the largest threats to global health this year, with hundreds of people dying from vaccine-preventable diseases.

"I mean, as soon as you see the word vaccine people sometimes question or doubt it. The other one is this is an infection where arguably if you abstain from certain behaviours you will not get it. So I think parents are also very reluctant to discuss the possibility their kids [will be] sexually active," he said.

"This is not ... an inconvenience or something embarrassing. This is an infection that can cause cancer and kill people."

Dr. Marc Steben, chair of the HPV Prevention Network, said he understands parents are busy and also that they have the right to decide what medications their kids receive.

"Parents still have the right to decide. But if there is something I would not like my kids to have is cancer," he said.

"I don't understand why in Canada … we're not going at higher rates of HPV immunization."

Evidence has shown the vaccine does not increase risky behaviour once teens become sexually active, and in fact is correlated with an increase in girls making healthier sexual choices and fewer teen pregnancies.

Steben said the vaccinations are also vital for herd immunity — when enough of the population is vaccinated it makes it difficult for illness to spread — to lower the rates of disease as a whole.

"Herd immunity does work for HPV, we've seen in countries with extremely high vaccination rates even the people who are not vaccinated are protected. We're not quite there yet in Canada," he said. 

With files from Jennifer Lee


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