You’ve probably heard about the vaccine that protects against human papillomavirus (HPV) but do you know much about it or why it is important for our health?
In the spirit of National Immunization Awareness Week, I would like to highlight this particular topic that continues to get media attention and is sometimes a point of concern for parents considering vaccinations for their school-aged children. I’ve also seen many young women in sexual health and immunization clinics who have had questions and misunderstandings about this immunization. In my experience, people are often ready to dismiss a vaccine when they’re uncertain of its safety or efficacy or if they’re uncertain of whether they’re even really at risk for the illness that the vaccine is preventing. This hesitation is understandable, right? We want to make sure that we are choosing health interventions that are necessary and safe for ourselves and our children. Well, hopefully I can help shed some light on this sometimes controversial topic!
The HPV vaccine protects against the virus that causes almost all cervical cancers. Cervical cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in women. Two types of HPV vaccines are approved for use in Canada: Cervarix® (HPV2) and Gardasil® (HPV4). Both vaccines protect against infection from HPV types 16 and 18 that cause about 70% of cervical cancers, 80% of anal cancers, and other cancers such as cancers of the mouth and throat, penis, vagina, and vulva. The HPV4 vaccine also protects against infection from HPV types 6 and 11 that cause about 90% of genital warts cases. The vaccines are approved by Health Canada and are provincially-funded (i.e., free) for girls and women aged 9-26. HPV4 vaccine is also recommended, but not provided free, for the following people:
- Adult women up to 45 years of age
- Boys and men 9-26 years of age
- Men 27 years of age and older who have sex with men
Those not eligible for free HPV vaccine can purchase it at most pharmacies and travel clinics.
- HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections. 3 out of 4 sexually active Canadians have been infected at some point in their lives.
- HPV infection is spread even with the use of condoms as it is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact.
- HPV infection rates peak at adolescence and can go undetected for quite some time as HPV usually causes little to no symptoms. For the greatest benefit, it is recommended to receive the HPV vaccine prior to the onset of sexual activity.
- Studies have shown that antibody levels in those who received the HPV vaccine were greater in individuals 9-15 years of age compared to those 16 years and older. The BC Centre for Disease Control has a great primer on antibodies and the role they play.
- Studies have shown that HPV vaccine is safe and effective. Common reactions are similar to other injectable vaccines and may include soreness, redness and swelling at the injection site, muscle or joint ache, fatigue, or headache.
This is just some of the information available on HPV vaccination. If you wish to find out more, please speak to your doctor or contact your local public health nurse. You can also visit Northern Health, ImmunizeBC, HealthLinkBC, and the BC Centre for Disease Control.
Still have questions? Check out the video below that provides more information on HPV and the HPV vaccine. ImmunizeBC has a great bank of HPV videos, too!
Additional immunization and HPV resources:
- National Advisory Committee on Immunization, Public Health Agency of Canada
- HealthLinkBC: Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccines
- BC Centre for Disease Control: Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
- Canadian Paediatric Society: A parent’s guide to immunization information on the Internet
About Kyrsten Thomson
Based in Terrace, Kyrsten is a public health communications liaison nurse. Her role focuses on promoting immunization awareness and supporting internal and external communications. Kyrsten moved to Terrace seven years ago after graduating with a nursing degree in Ontario. As a student, she knew public health was her passion, especially work in health promotion and community development. She fell in love with the north and all the fantastic outdoor activities right at her fingertips. Since moving to the north, Kyrsten has started a family, taken up hiking, running, and enjoys spending summer days at the cabin.