HPV vaccines critical to protect youth from cancer in their future

Imagine there was a way to prevent your child from having certain types of cancers? And imagine it was as simple as two doses of a vaccine. Would you not expect there to be a stampede of parents to get their child vaccinated to prevent cancer?

The fact of the matter is that there is a vaccine, the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine, and it has been available for more than a decade. HPV vaccine prevents cancers of the cervix, vagina, anus, vulva, penis as well as the mouth and throat. Together, these cancers account for five percent of all cancers. In 2020, approximately 200 women died of cervical cancer alone in Ontario.

HPV is a common infection, and many strains of it cause cancer. It is estimated that three out of four people will get infected with one strain or another of HPV once they become sexually active. So why not wait to be vaccinated? The catch is, for the vaccine to be most effective, people need to be vaccinated before their first sexual experience. This is why the first dose of the vaccine is recommended at age 12 and a second dose administered six months later. If we are able to reach the public health target of 90 percent by 2025, many lives will be saved. In fact, if this target is not met, it is projected that approximately 6,800 women will develop preventable cancers, of which 1,750 will die by 2050.

Prior to the pandemic, about 65 percent of children received the HPV vaccine across Ontario, primarily at clinics operated at local schools. But with COVID-19, vaccine clinics at schools had been curtailed and resources diverted. As a result, the current vaccination rate of 12 year olds for HPV in Ontario is a dismal 1 percent which falls far from our goal and from saving lives. So, why is the number of kids vaccinated so low? It seems like everyone should want to get their children vaccinated.

Preventing cancer should be a no-brainer. But there is a second catch! HPV is a sexually transmitted virus, and we are talking about vaccinating young people to prevent cancer. The reality is that most of us are uncomfortable talking about sex in general, let alone contemplating the sexual activity of our children. But there are three indisputable facts to consider: 1) our children will grow up, 2) the vast majority of them will have sex in their adolescent or young adult life, and 3) three out of four of them will contract HPV. The age that they become sexually active and their choice in partner(s) is not in the control of parents. However, keeping young people safe and reducing their risk of cancer is well within our control as parents.

In closing, my ask as a public health official, doctor, and a parent is to get your children vaccinated. It will protect your children as they advance towards adulthood. HPV vaccine is available in school based clinics, family doctors offices, and community health centers. The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit is currently offering catch-up immunization clinics for students in grades 7 to 12 and HPV vaccine is one of the vaccines offered.

Just imagine if you could prevent cancers in your child by merely getting them vaccinated.

Dr. Shanker Nesathurai Acting Medical Officer of Health for the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit