Free HPV vaccination for N.L. boys not in sight

Alberta to join P.E.I. as only provinces expanding protection against cancer-causing virus

Published on December 9, 2013
Glenn Deir of St. John’s underwent radiation treatment in 2007 to battle oropharyngeal cancer, a cancer that affected his tonsils. He is pictured wearing a radiotherapy mask. Deir would like Newfoundland and Labrador to provide boys with free access to the HPV vaccine as a further means to protect people from the cancer-causing virus. — Submitted photo

The Newfoundland and Labrador government says it is not prepared to follow the lead of two other Canadian provinces by providing vaccinations for free to school-aged boys as a means to protect them from a cancer-causing virus

Last week, Alberta announced it would cover human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccinations for approximately 47,500 boys in grades 5 and 9 starting next fall. Prince Edward Island is the only other province offering a free vaccination program for boys at schools.

In an email to The Telegram, a spokesman for the N.L. Department of Health and Community Services said the province’s efforts to target girls with the vaccine has lowered the likelihood of the virus spreading between sexes.

According to the department, the school-based immunization program in Newfoundland and Labrador gets 90 per cent of Grade 6 girls vaccinated. It said that coverage rate is the highest in Canada specific to the HPV vaccine.

“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,” said the department spokesman.

HPV, of which there is 40 varieties, spreads through sexual contact. The virus can lead to cervical cancer in women.

Glenn Deir, a journalist with CBC based in St. John’s, was diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer (a cancer of the tonsils) in 2007 and wrote about his experience dealing with it in a book called “Sick Joke,” published by Breakwater Books. He received his last treatment in November of that year and has been cancer-free ever since, though he still feels its effects through the limited capabilities of his salivary glands.

Deir suspects the cost of expanding the immunization program may be a factor in the provincial government’s current position.

“I would really ask the province to have another look at the policy, and I expect it’s a money issue, unless they’re not convinced by the medical evidence, but I think there is pretty compelling evidence now that this vaccine prevents the transmission of HPV in boys.”

In Alberta, the cost of the expanded program is expected to be $11 million annually. Its total population of 3.6 million is approximately seven times that of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Both the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada and the National Advisory Committee on Immunization have publicly come out in favour of vaccinating boys. The latter group came to that conclusion after it reviewed scientific literature on vaccines in order to make a submission to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Dr. James Talbot, Alberta’s chief medical health officer, recently told The Canadian Press that research indicates almost all head and neck cancers occurring in men under the age of 40 are HPV-related.

While Deir thinks it is great Newfoundland and Labrador is having so much success getting girls vaccinated, he can see flaws in only offering a free immunization program to one sex.

“There is a percentage (of girls) that’s not getting vaccinated, so they run the risk of picking up the virus and passing it along to men later in life. And what about gay men who will never have sex with a woman? They can have the virus and pass it amongst themselves.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gay and bisexual men are 17 times more likely to develop anal cancer than men who only engage in sex with women.

“We’re talking about a preventable cancer, and why wouldn’t you want to prevent it? I mean, sex gave me cancer, and that shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be that something so wonderful gives you cancer.”