Alberta was the last province in Canada to make HPV vaccines available to girls; it will be the second in the country to offer the cancer-preventing vaccine to boys.
Health Minister Fred Horne announced Thursday that boys in Grade 5 will be able to get the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine for free in their schools starting next school year. The vaccine has been available to Grade 5 and Grade 9 girls in the province since 2008.
HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection that can cause a number of cancers, the most common being cervical cancer in women. To a lesser extent it can cause anal and penile cancers in men, and recent provincial data shows that almost all head and neck cancers in men under 40 are HPV-related.
The vaccine’s delivery in schools has attracted opposition in Alberta, particularly among religion-based school jurisdictions based on concerns about vaccine delivery leading to promiscuity. Other safety concerns have been raised, but the province’s chief medical officer of health said the “jury is in” on the vaccine’s value.
“We have lots of studies and it’s been used in other places enough that we know it’s a very safe and it’s very effective. For the 70 per cent of the cervical cancers that are caused by the two strains, the vaccine is almost 100 per cent effective at preventing that,” said Dr. James Talbot.
“There aren’t many things that parents can do for their children that guarantee that they’re going to have a lower risk of cancer, and this is one of them, so we would really like them to make sure that their children are immunized. We’ve done everything we can . . . to make it as easy as possible for them to make the healthy choice,” he added.
About 61 per cent of girls in Alberta have received the shots since the program began. Talbot said the expectation is that numbers will be similar for boys — the expectation is that 47,500 boys will receive the vaccination next fall.
Like other school-based immunization programs, HPV vaccination will be voluntary and parental consent will be required.
Because the virus can be transmitted back and forth between the sexes, Talbot said boys being immunized will help to reduce cervical cancer rates for girls. As well, he said, studies from jurisdictions in the U.S. and Australia have shown that when the vaccine is offered to boys, the uptake among girls improves.
“Boys getting immunized helps convince more parents of girls that they should get their girls immunized,” said Talbot.
As part of the vaccination program, there will be a four-year “catch-up” period that will see delivery to Grade 9 boys as well. All students in Grade 8 and below this year will have the opportunity to get the vaccine in school starting next September.
According to research, the male vaccination program is expected to prevent 440 cases of head and neck cancers over a 50-year period, representing $13.4 million in cost savings to the health care system. The program is expected to cost less than $8 million annually, plus costs to administer the shots.
P.E.I. was the first province in Canada to announce it would vaccinate boys against HPV. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization made the recommendation two years ago and a national association of obstetricians and gynecologists urged health ministers to immunize boys earlier this year.
Talbot said early studies on the efficacy of the vaccine show girls’ antibody levels remain high five years after immunization, which he said suggests it will remain effective over a longer period. Longer-term studies are not yet available.
In October, Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division opted to allow HPV vaccines to be administered in its schools starting in 2014 after years of opposition. Both the Catholic and public school divisions in Red Deer will allow the program for boys starting next year.
The vaccine is most effective if administered prior to a person becoming sexually active.