Sudbury health unit hopes to get HPV vaccination rate back on track

Vaccination rates for the human papillomavirus (HPV) have dropped significantly in the Sudbury area during the pandemic — and the public health unit said it is focused on getting vaccination back on track.

Pandemic forced public health unit to put school vaccination program on pause

The number of HPV vaccine doses administered dropped significantly during the pandemic, both locally and across the country. (CBC)

Vaccination rates for the human papillomavirus (HPV) have dropped significantly in the Sudbury area during the pandemic — and the public health unit said it is focused on getting vaccination back on track.

HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer, and can also lead to other cancers, according to Health Canada. HPV vaccines are typically offered to Grade 7 and 8 students in-school, along with other routine vaccines, but that program was put on pause because of the pandemic. Older teens and adults can also receive the vaccine, if they haven't yet been immunized. 

While the vaccine is still available through public health, uptake has been much lower. According to Public Health Sudbury and Districts, it administered just 1,237 doses in 2020, down from 3,325 doses in 2019 — a drop of more than 60 per cent. 

"Right now what we are focusing on is trying to get everyone up to date," said Emilie Gatien, a public health nurse with Public Health Sudbury and Districts. 

'Derails' progress 

The decrease in vaccination rates is a trend seen across the country, according to Dr. Vivien Brown, the chair of HPV Prevention Week in Canada, and a family doctor in Toronto. Brown said overall, HPV vaccination dropped by about two thirds in Ontario during the pandemic. 

"We have lots of kids that are falling through the cracks, having missed vaccine. And lots of parents don't even know that their children have missed an opportunity to be vaccinated," Brown said. 

HPV vaccines have been offered in schools in Ontario since 2007. Brown said it's too soon to know what kind of effect the vaccination effort is having on overall cervical cancer rates, but she said there has been an "excellent" reduction in pre-cancers. 

Dr. Vivien Brown is a family doctor and the chair of HPV Prevention Week in Canada. (Submitted by Vivien Brown )

In 2018, the World Health Organization declared a call to action to eliminate cervical cancer worldwide. Brown said the current disruption in vaccination efforts could "absolutely" slow down that progress. 

"It derails how well we've been doing. And you know Canada is one of the few countries that does have vaccine for boys and girls in every province and territory being offered without cost to the individual. We need to take advantage of that," Brown said. 

"This is a way of changing what's happening in the general community. The term medically is the herd effect, when we get more people immunized we see less disease."

Brown said its important that public health units host catch-up clinics in schools, and also that parents contact health care providers to ensure their children are up to date on vaccinations.

Gatien said Public Health Sudbury and Districts plans to resume its in-school vaccination program later this fall, which will target a wider age range than usual. 

"Our typical range would be the 7 and 8th grade students, but we are definitely going to plan to catch up our Grade 9 and 10 students who missed their chance during the pandemic." 


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