By Erin Atack
A Canadian immunization board is recommending women aged nine to 26 be vaccinated against a common STI.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) released a statement last Tuesday recommending Gardasil, a recently-released vaccine that prevents human papillomavirus, or HPV, an infection that causes cervical cancer.
In the product’s ads, the company urges women to talk about HPV with the slogan: Tell someone.
Tell someone that “this is a vaccine that’s going to prevent death,” says Sheila Murphy, spokesperson for Merck Frosst, the pharmaceutical company that developed and manufactures the vaccine.
HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that causes genital warts. Some strains, however, have no symptoms and can progress into cancer of the cervix if not treated quickly and effectively, says Stratford General Hospital obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. Gregg Hancock.
“Every cancer of the cervix is caused by HPV, and almost every other abnormal Pap smear is because of HPV,” he says.
Seventy-five per cent of Canadians will become infected in their lives. Gardasil protects against 70 per cent of the strains that cause cervical cancer and 90 per cent of the strains that cause genital warts.
The RSU’s health plan covers 80 per cent of the $400 cost — though service fees in other facilities can make that cost as much as $750. Ryerson’s health centre has been working with the RSU to get the vaccine covered since it came out last August, said Melissa Matton, a health promotions nurse at Ryerson.
But many students don’t consider price a factor. “Considering the long-term effects if I did catch something like that, then that amount of money is worth it,” says third-year arts and contemporary studies student Kaitlin Hurst, 20. “I think taking precaution is better.”
The Ontario Ministry of Health is still reviewing the effectiveness and uses of the vaccine, so Gardasil is currently not covered under provincial health plans, says A.G. Klei, spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Health. Until now, the only way to prevent the virus was by using condoms or other barrier methods, or by abstaining from sex completely.
While those methods were often unsuccessful, Hancock says, women have had to rely on regular Pap smears in hopes of catching the virus in time. HPV causes changes in the skin of the cervix called dysplasia.
The hope with Pap tests is that they will pick up the dysplasia so it can be treated before it becomes cancer. “There are four stages. The earliest parts of stage one can be treated with surgery…if it gets past that, it’s deadly,” he says. “The problem with the types that are picked up with symptoms instead of a Pap smear is that they’re probably already into the third or fourth stages.”
Gardasil reduces the need for Pap tests in screening for HPV since it’s a one-time immunization preventive of four of the deadliest strains of the virus. The immunization must be given in three doses over a period of six months to protect you. “The main idea is to prevent it before contact with the virus, so ideally, before intercourse,” Hancock says.
The vaccine has so far been successful where it’s been offered, Murphy says, citing 33 countries, including the United States, Australia, Mexico, Brazil, New Zealand, countries in Asia and in Europe. Murphy is reluctant to comment on the vaccine’s popularity in Canada since its debut, but she says the company is not disappointed.
“It’s new so everything new takes a while for people to know that it’s available, including physicians, but it’s pretty much (going) as we expected it to,” she says. Murphy hopes people see the risks of HPV and the benefits Gardasil can have for everyone. “We all have sex. “We are recommending that everyone get it,” Murphy says.
Hancock agrees that it should be a concern among the general public and not just among those who have multiple partners and behave irresponsibly when it comes to sex.
“You only have to have one partner in your whole life to pick this up if they’ve been with anyone else,” Hancock says. Ryerson Health Promotions plans to launch a campaign next month to encourage women to be vaccinated.