HPV vaccination rates for boys in Nova Scotia climbing, province says

Nova Scotian boys are getting the HPV vaccine at the same high rate as girls, the province’s chief public health officer says.

Dr. Robert Strang says first year of giving HPV vaccine to boys proving a success

Dr. Robert Strang says Nova Scotia has one of the highest HPV vaccination rates in Canada. (CBC)

Nova Scotia has one of the best HPV vaccination rates in the country with boys getting the vaccine at the same rate as girls, the province's chief public health officer says.

In 2008, Nova Scotia started offering the vaccine to Grade 7 girls to protect against cancer. In 2015, it expanded the program to offer it to boys, too.

Strang said he has no official data yet, but frontline reports show boys and girls are getting the vaccine at equal rates.

"We have some of the best coverage rates in the country, if I may brag a little bit. We have 75 to 80 per cent coverage rate for HPV vaccine, which is substantially better than some other provinces," Strang told Information Morning on Tuesday.

He said evidence shows human papillomavirus (HPV) is a cause of cervical, head and neck cancers, and that vaccination can prevent those cancers.

In Canada, girls between ages nine and 13 can receive a free HPV immunization no matter where they live. Four provinces—Alberta, Nova Scotia, British Columbia and P.E.I.—also offer the vaccine to boys.

We're naive to think kids at the Grade 7 age aren't starting to become sexually active. This is a way we can actually protect them.- Dr. Robert Strang

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), which helps to shape public policy, recommended in 2012 that the HPV vaccine should be provided to boys, just as it is to girls.

It's a very effective vaccine, Strang said, with studies showing it produces an immune response against the virus. Detecting an impact on the cancer rate will take years, as the first class of vaccinated Nova Scotians age.

"There are some studies now showing already that we're starting to see some direct impact and decreases in pre-cancerous lesions that can be detected [in] women in their 20s when they start to get regular pap smears," the doctor said.

Starting a conversation

HPV is spread through sexual activity and Strang said that link has created controversy in other parts of Canada, but not in Nova Scotia.

"We haven't had any barriers to getting information out from schools to parents. Whether parents are challenged on this at the family level? That may well be an issue for some, but I'm certainly not aware that it's a major issue that comes out," he said.

He added that no evidence shows getting the vaccine—or teaching students from the province's sex guide—impacts sexual activity.

"We're naïve to think that kids at the Grade 7 age aren't starting to become sexually active. This is a way we can actually protect them," he said.

"Maybe in doing that we start a conversation about other ways they need to protect themselves to be healthy while they start to understand about sexuality."

The Department of Health and Wellness sends vaccine information to schools, which pass it on to parents. Some vaccines are one dose, others are two or three. Two clinics took place in the fall, and the third is happening now.

HPV leads to several cancers

In the absence of vaccination, about 75 per cent of sexually active Canadians will have a sexually transmitted HPV infection in their lifetime, according to NACI.

​Two types of HPV cause 70 per cent of cervical cancer in women, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. In men, the virus is responsible for a high percentage of mouth, nose and throat cancers, as well as some cancers of the penis and anus.

HPV refers to a group of more than 100 types of related viruses, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. It's the most commonly transmitted sexually transmitted infection.

With files from Jackie Ruryk