With our children back in classrooms across the country, school boards and public health agencies are moving with urgency to vaccinate eligible youth against COVID-19. Last year, as schools were closing their doors and moving to virtual learning across the country, we could only hope for a vaccine that could help us stem the tide of this potentially deadly virus – how far we’ve come!
While there is certainly a lot to celebrate in what public health agencies have achieved over the past year, we have lost sight of some of the other school-based vaccination programs (Hepatitis B, Meningitis and Human Papillomavirus or HPV) disrupted by the pandemic. These vital programs help keep our children and our communities protected against certain diseases. In some regions, the abrupt cancellation of in-school vaccination programs drastically reduced uptake. In Alberta for example, less than 10 per cent of eligible 12-year-old girls received their second HPV vaccine dose in 2020, compared to over 65 per cent in 2019.
Oct. 3 to 8 marks the fifth annual HPV Prevention Week in Canada, an awareness and educational initiative which encourages everyone to take measures to help stop the spread of HPV and the range of cancers it can cause. HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection that is responsible for almost all cases of cervical cancer, but it can also lead to anal cancer; vaginal, and vulvar cancers; penile cancers; mouth and throat cancers, as well as genital warts. It is estimated that as many as three out of four sexually active Canadians will contract HPV at some point in their lives.
Efforts to help children catch-up with missed in-school vaccinations like HPV have been largely regional, sporadic, and ineffective. We predict that already overstretched public health agencies will struggle to make significant gains. In many cases, catch-up clinics are being held in community locations and not in schools, putting the onus on parents to ensure their child is up to date on their immunizations. In-school programs in all provinces and territories are the best and most effective way to ensure we’re making HPV vaccination easily accessible to every eligible child.
More can and should be done at the provincial, territorial and local levels to ensure children who missed their first or second dose of HPV vaccine are not left behind. This means arming public health with the funding to offer in-school catch-up clinics and ensuring that HPV vaccination is offered in-school during the 2021-2022 school year. Parents can also help to ensure their child is up to date with all routine vaccinations by contacting their local public health unit or health care provider, including doctors, nurses, or pharmacists.
In 2020, the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer introduced the Action Plan for the Elimination of Cervical Cancer in Canada with a goal to eliminate cervical cancer by 2040. The World Health Organization has set a goal to eliminate cervical cancer across the globe within the next century. Increasing vaccination uptake in school-based HPV immunization programs is one of the top priorities for helping us meet this goal, and missing full cohorts puts it at risk. Dr. Craig Earle, vice president, Cancer Control at the Partnership said, “Canada has an ambitious target, but an achievable one. Vaccinating children against HPV today could help prevent more than 5,000 cervical cancer cases by 2040. Boosting immunization rates is one of the best things we can do to work towards ensuring the next generation of Canadians are free of cervical and other HPV-related cancers.”
Ending the COVID-19 pandemic will and should remain an urgent public health priority for Canadians. However, we cannot let our guard down against other serious health threats. It is within Canada’s grasp to eliminate cervical cancer in our lifetime, and that’s not something we can put at risk.
To learn more about HPV prevention at any age, visit CANADAvsHPV.ca.
Dr. Vivien Brown is the chair and co-founder of HPV Prevention Week in Canada, and past president of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada (FMWC). Dr. Jennifer Blake is the CEO of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada (SOGC).