As a mother of a fourteen year old boy and eighteen year old girl, all three vaccinated with Gardasil, as well as a Sexual Health Educator, it has come to my attention that many people are lacking unbiased information on the topic of HPV. Numerous people across Canada thanks to the internet, have read recent articles written in response to the front-page story referring to the ‘Dark Side of HPV Vaccination’ in the Toronto Star, now there are many fearful and confused about the safety of the HPV vaccine.

There is a tremendous need for unbiased, age appropriate, simple, and accurate information about HPV and the link it has in our relationships. It is of utmost importance to have all of the facts concerning HPV so that people can make educated decisions on HPV vaccination.

In 2006, Health Authorities offered Canadians a solution to a problem that most did not even know existed. People learned of the existence of HPV after Health Canada reviewed the data about efficacy and safety approving Gardasil followed by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) making their recommendation. In 2007, HPV vaccination school based programs for girls started Nationwide.

Unfortunately, the emphasis was not being put on the knowledge about HPV prior to the introduction of the vaccine programs, making it hard to have a good campaign, resulting in most of the attention being rather on the efficacy and safety of HPV vaccines. Nevertheless, it is of paramount importance to understand what HPV has to do with you. How can you expect to have an educated discussion about HPV vaccination if you don’t even know what HPV is?

Here are key facts everyone should know:

  • HPV stands for the Human papillomavirus;
  • Condoms do not offer complete protection from HPV, as the condom does not cover the entire genital area;
  • An often neglected and crucial fact that is all too often poorly understood is that HPV affects men as well as women, so boys and men should be included in education and any endeavors around HPV;
  • The highest rates of HPV infection are found in youths under the age of 25;
  • Types 6 and 11 of HPV causes genital warts, and HPV types 16 and 18 can cause several cancers, and almost 100% of cervical cancers, there are vaccines currently available to protect against both;
  • 40% to 80% of some anogenital cancers (anus, vulva, vagina and penis), as well as 47% to 70% of oropharyngeal cancers (head, neck, throat and tongue) are caused by HPV. These cancers of the mouth and airways are most likely linked to people performing oral sex, not protecting their mouths and because they lay dormant for many years it surfaces later as a cancer;
  • HPV can stay dormant in both men and women for up to 30 years, making people of all ages affected by HPV, because of how long the virus can stay asleep in a person’s body;
  • HPV can be prevented and detected before turning into a full-blown cervical cancer;
  • The prevalence of anal cancer, which is believed to be caused by HPV, has doubled in the past 25 years;
  • HPV is highly contagious because it is transmitted through skin to skin contact below the waistline;
  • 80% of sexually active people will contract HPV in their lifetime.

Families around the country are affected by HPV, with 3000 Canadians diagnosed with an HPV related cancer yearly. Conservative Member of Parliament, the Honorable Peter Kent, and Spokesperson of HPV Global Action, has spoken publicly of his diagnosis and battle with his HPV-related throat cancer. “There should be no stigma to HPV related conditions or cancer; it can happen to virtually anyone. Vaccination for boys and girls is the best prevention.” Kent goes on to say, “When I was a boy, the HPV vaccine did not exist. If it had, my mother who was Registered Nurse would have certainly vaccinated me, my brother and my three sisters, and I would have been saved from the suffering of treatment and the healthcare system would have been spared the considerable cost of treating my stage 4 HPV related cancer. ”

Dr. Marc Steben, Medical Director of Clinique A and 2010 international HPV Research meeting Chairman says, “HPV does not discriminate. There is a definite burden for both males and females of all ages; it will harm individuals, couples, families, and societies. Primary prevention through vaccination is always better and cheaper than secondary prevention through screening for cervical cancer and treatment of genital warts and HPV related cancers. We must have confidence in Canada’s surveillance systems that are monitoring adverse events and most provinces and territories have their own surveillance systems that are watched closely.” Steben goes on to say, “If there were any cluster of severe side effects arising from the use of Gardasil, we would have known it by now. The vaccine adverse events registration at the FDA has logged thousands of reported side effects but none have been linked to Gardasil. Other than the pain and swelling that comes afterwards, these minor symptoms are temporary, and can occur with almost any vaccine”. Dr. Steben further affirms, “to date, in the 200 million doses administered worldwide, we are not seeing clusters of adverse events.”

Dr. Jean-Yves Frappier, Vice President of the HPV Awareness Corporation and current Chair of Paediatrics at the University of Montreal and CHU Sainte-Justine thinks education will affect HPV transmission and therefore HPV rate. “Health professionals and the media have an important role to play in empowering parents and enabling them to increase their communications with their children and teens with regards to sexual health issues.” He adds, “Good communication within families and especially around sexual health issues is associated with more responsible behaviours.” Frappier concludes that, “Parents seem to underestimate their role and the impact that they have; it is important to promote discussions with teens; not only about HPV and its prevention through vaccination, but around healthy sexuality as well.”

As for the vaccine itself, Dr. Zeev Rosberger is a leading researcher in clinical health psychology, and is Director of the Louise Granofsky-Psychosocial Oncology Program at the Jewish General Hospital and Senior Investigator at the Lady Davis Insititute for Medical Research. He is also a board member of HPV Global Action. His current research focus is on the decision-making processes related to prevention of Human papillomavirus (HPV). Dr. Rosberger stated, “Most fears related to the HPV vaccine are more related to myth than reality.” Furthermore, “It will be essential to focus on the education of health care providers regarding indications for HPV vaccination, and enhancing approaches to communicating most effectively with parents and patients about the safety and benefits of vaccination, as well as the risks associated with non-vaccination.”

The Recipe for successful HPV prevention is through vaccination, education about HPV aside from pamphlets, as well as screening for cervical cancer in women which is equally crucial. I strongly believe that through an increase in awareness about HPV, there will also be a direct increase in the number of HPV screenings and diagnostics; saving lives by preventing cancers.

HPV Global Action is a National, bilingual, Registered Charity raising awareness and specifically providing education programs about HPV in the context of healthy relationships since 2006. Our mission is to raise awareness through education in schools and communities of every demographic across Canada, by informing youth (girls and boys), parents, faculty and the public of HPV and its complications.