Saskatchewan

Rising cancer findings in men prompt call for equal access to HPV vaccines in Sask.

The latest statistics on cancer from the Canadian Cancer Society show that a third of all human papillomavirus-caused cancers occur in men, commonly and increasingly as throat and mouth cancers.

Statistics from Canadian Cancer Society show one third of HPV-related cancers occur in men

The publicly-funded HPV shot given to girls should also be given to boys, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. (Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press)

New statistics on HPV are causing concern about the risk of cancer for men in Saskatchewan. 

The latest statistics on cancer from the Canadian Cancer Society show that a third of all human papillomavirus-caused cancers occur in men, commonly and increasingly as throat and mouth cancers.

"We found it quite surprising that there are so many men diagnosed with cancers caused by HPV; that it's not just a virus that causes cervical cancer, that it can cause cancers in men as well," said Robert Nuttall, assistant director of Health Policy for the Canadian Cancer Society.

'Outstanding' increase rate  

The society said the connection between HPV and cervical cancer has been well-known for years, but many don't realize that HPV also causes many other cancers in both sexes.

In between 1992 and 2012, there was a 56 per cent increase in HPV-induced mouth and throat cancers in men. 

Dr. Peter Spafford, head of the head and neck surgery at the University of Saskatchewan, said that in the cancer world, those are "outstanding" numbers. 

"We're at the point now in 2016 where the rate of HPV-induced mouth and throat cancer will actually equal that of cervical cancer in women," Spafford said in an interview on CBC Radio's The Morning Edition.

Currently 35 per cent of HPV cancers are cervical. 

Call for equal access for men

The findings has prompted calls from the Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Society of Otolaryngology for the government to expand the province's immunization program to include boys.

In Saskatchewan, girls in grade 6 have access to a publicly-funded HPV vaccine, but boys aren't covered and don't have equal access to the vaccine, according to the Canadian Cancer Society in Saskatchewan.

B.C., New Brunswick, Newfoundland and the territories also have not adopted universal vaccination programs.

Spafford said that's because the gravity of the problem hasn't been properly digested by those who make decisions. 

Vaccinations are available for HPV16 and HPV18, which are responsible for the majority of HPV cancers. (Valentin Flauraud/Reuters)
 

In the prairies, 600 cases of HPV-associated cancer are estimated to be diagnosed this year, according to the report. 

Across Canada the number is estimated to be 4,400 cases this year, with one third occurring in men. Of those, 1,200 are expected to die. 

"It's a subject that's very sensitive, so it doesn't get a lot of media coverage," Spafford said, referring to the fact that HPV is spread through sexual contact.  

"The uptake on it has been quite slow." 

The Government of Saskatchewan said there are many competing pressures for limited resources when it comes to expanding coverage for vaccines. 

"We are aware of the new report from the Cancer Society and Public Health Agency of Canada and will review its findings," the Ministry of Health said in a statement. 

The HPV vaccination program for boys continues to be under consideration, but the ministry said there won't be any changes announced today.  

"Everybody needs to be treated equal," Jim Reiter, the minister of health, told reporters Wednesday. "I'm a boy, so I'm concerned about everyone."

He added he will consult with ministry officials about the program.

Biological differences and prevention

The research on why men are more likely to get cancer in in the mouth and throat caused by HPV is still ongoing, but Nuttall said it could be related to sexual behaviours or general differences in biology between the sexes. 

He said men are four times as likely to get diagnosed with this type of cancer than women.

"There's evidence suggesting that immune systems can respond differently to these types of infections and it could just be that women are more effective at getting rid of these infections and they're more likely to persist in males leading to these cancers," Nuttall said. 

Spafford said doctors specializing in throat and neck cancer have traditionally dealt with smoking and alcohol consumption as the main causes of mouth and throat cancers. 

Prevention from our point of view is the best way to treat these cancers.- Dr. Peter  Spafford , head and neck surgeon

Now that's changing. 

"The data indicates that HPV-induced infection are actually becoming as common or more common than smoking-induced cancers," Spafford said. 

In light of this, Spafford said prevention of HPV through vaccination is crucial. 

"Prevention from our point of view is the best way to treat these cancers," he said. 

While there are more than 100 different types of HPV, the majority of HPV cancers are caused by HPV16 and HPV18 — both of which can be almost entirely prevented through vaccination, according to the cancer society. 

With files from CBC Radio's The Morning Edition