Let’s call the provincial government’s refusal to vaccinate boys against the human papillomavirus what it is: discrimination.
So far in Canada, P.E.I. is the only province offering free vaccines for boys, with Alberta planning to follow suit in the fall.
Would such a vaccination program be expensive? Yes it would, but there are far greater costs at stake — we’re talking about preventing human suffering and, in come cases, death.
This province vaccinates girls, which is important, since HPV causes cervical cancer. But it can also cause genital warts, and anal, penile and throat cancers in boys.
Newly retired CBC journalist Glenn Deir has spokenly openly about his experience with oropharyngeal cancer and has called for a vaccination program for boys.
So far, the province doesn’t seem to be listening.
The Department of Health told The Telegram recently: “The high uptake of the HPV vaccine among girls has protected approximately 50 per cent of the population, which significantly lowers the possibility of contracting and transmitting the virus between sexes.”
That’s an awfully narrow view of the world.
What about males who have sex with males? What about males who travel and have sex with females who have not been vaccinated? Our young men are hardly living in a bubble; they can move about, after all.
The policy of vaccinating only girls discriminates against boys on a couple of levels — one, by suggesting that only girls deserve this measure of protection and two, by ignoring the fact that HPV can be transmitted between men.
Boys can get the vaccination here — but only if their family has the financial means. If their family can’t afford to pay, they are out of luck. That’s two-tier health care.
In Australia, males 12 and 13 are getting free vaccines against HPV — making it the first country to offer a publicly funded program for boys.
In an article in BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) in February, the head of the sexual health program at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales in Sydney said men who have sex with men would benefit the most from this new vaccination program, since they receive no benefit from the vaccination of girls.
“If the federal government hadn’t done this, they would have been at risk down the track of being accused of discriminating,” Basil Donovan said.
In the same article, the Terrence Higgins Trust — a HIV and sexual health charity in the United Kingdom — points out that “men have a right to the same protection from the virus as women.”
Clinical director Jason Warriner says, “The female vaccination program will indirectly protect some men. However, those who have sex with men or women who aren’t vaccinated will remain at risk. This is particularly concerning given the rates of HPV related anal cancer and genital warts among gay men.”
“Little boys will grow up and they will have sex. Without protection, they risk contacting HPV. You don’t want your little boy going through what I went through.” — Glenn Deir, “Sick Joke”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States also encourages boys to get protection against HPV.
The organization’s website “recommends Gardasil for all boys aged 11 or 12 years, and for males aged 13 through 21 years who did not get any or all of the three recommended doses when they were younger. All men may receive the vaccine through age 26. … The vaccine is also recommended for gay and bisexual men (or any man who has sex with men) and men with compromised immune systems (including HIV) through age 26, if they did not get fully vaccinated when they were younger.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the vacation for both boys and girls, as well.
An expert in the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s head and neck oncology program in Boston — a world leader in cancer treatment — said it is prudent to vaccinate all children, not just girls.
“There is a misconception that only girls should be vaccinated and that is the wrong approach,” Dr. Robert I. Haddad told Science Daily in June.
“We strongly believe that both boys and girls should be vaccinated against HPV.”
In Canada, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommends the Gardasil vaccine for males between nine and 26 years old, noting that “the total burden of HPV-associated cancers among males is estimated at 5.2 per cent of all cancers worldwide (and that) increasing rates of anal cancer among males have been observed, paired with lower survival compared to females.”
That recommendation was made almost two years ago and boys in this province are still not being given a vaccination that could save many lives, not to mention health-care costs down the road.
As the Canadian Cancer Survivor Network website points out, “It is short-sighted and ineffective to only focus on females for policy on how human papillomavirus vaccines should be implemented. Human papillomavirus is not an exclusively female issue. Vaccinating males is a more equitable public health policy. Immunization is often one of the cheapest, most cost-effective public health initiatives undertaken by health officials.”
We love our sons as well as our daughters. It’s time to make HPV prevention a priority in this province — for all our children.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: pam_frampton