A 'no-brainer': boys in Ontario to soon receive free HPV vaccine

Ottawa's public health unit is welcoming Thursday's announcement that Ontario will join other provinces in offering the HPV vaccine to both boys and girls in Grade 7.

Ottawa Public Health will administer HPV vaccine to all Grade 7 students

Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins said Thursday that extending vaccinations against HPV to boys is "an equity issue." (CBC)

Ottawa's public health unit is welcoming the news that Ontario will join other provinces in offering the HPV vaccine to both boys and girls in Grade 7.

"It's been an equity issue that we provide this cancer preventing vaccine not just to girls, but to boys as well," said Minister of Health and Long-Term Care Eric Hoskins at a Thursday announcement at the Toronto General Hospital .

"The science and evidence says that we can and should do that."

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization has been recommending adding boys to the program since 2012, suggesting the vaccine has proven successful in reducing the risk of several kinds of cancer in both girls and boys.

Dr. Carolyn Pim of Ottawa Public Health says public health agencies have been asking the province to extend vaccinations to boys, so OPH is "certainly very pleased," with Thursday's announcement. (CBC)

More than 1,000 people in Ontario are currently diagnosed with a cancer associated with HPV, otherwise known as the human papillomavirus, said Dr. Carolyn Pim, the acting deputy medical officer of health with Ottawa Public Health (OPH).

Some 250 Ontarians also die each year due to HPV-related cancers, Pim said.

"The public health agencies in Ontario have been advocating for this for some time. So we're certainly very pleased that the announcement was made," said Pim.

Although people may not be aware of the case for including boys in the vaccination program, Pim said it's becoming clearer that there's a connection between boys who have HPV and the presence of certain cancers.

'It's a no-brainer'

During a Thursday night hockey practice for eight-year-old boys at Ottawa's Tom Brown Arena, several parents conceded they didn't know much about the push to get boys vaccinated against HPV — though many were familiar with the vaccine for girls.

"If I can prevent cancer in my son, and we can get it at no cost, definitely it's a no-brainer," said Martin Orr as he watched his own son play on the ice.

Parent Martin Orr says vaccinating boys against HPV is a "no-brainer." (CBC)

"I would do it. I would want to look into it, but on the surface, this sounds like a good thing to do. And I'd want my eight-year-old to have the vaccination he needs to stay healthy."

Since 2007, Ontario has been offering the HPV vaccine to girls in response to growing evidence that it could reduce cervical cancer rates among girls and women.

Currently, about 55 per cent of girls are taking part in the volunteer immunization program at Ottawa's public schools, Pim said.

OPH trying to raise participation rates

OPH is working on raising participation rates, focusing on campaigns that build awareness of the vaccine's proven success.

More than 100 counties now administer the vaccine to girls, Pim said, with the latest research suggesting a dramatic decrease in HPV-associated cancers as a result.

Kids practice hockey at the Tom Brown Arena in Ottawa's Hintonburg neighbourhood. (CBC)

One study published in the journal Pediatrics in March showed that within the first six years of the U.S. program (which began in 2006) there was a two-thirds drop in the prevalence of strains of HPV targeted by the vaccine among girls aged 14 to 19, as well as a 34 per cent drop in women aged 20 to 24.

In Ontario, the vaccine is currently given in two doses to girls in Grade 8. Beginning next September girls and boys will both be offered the vaccine in Grade 7.

Girl who are in Grade 7 this year will have a chance to get the vaccine next year as well, according to Pim.

Cost of program will nearly double

Hoskins said Thursday that Ontario boys and girls will in fact be able to request the vaccine until they turn 13.

Adding boys to the program will come with a cost, said the health minister, noting the program will go from costing about $8 million this year to $15 million next year.

​Two types of HPV are responsible for almost three-quarters 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.