A vaccine for one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in Canada will be covered for boys and young men across the territory starting June.
Gardasil, a vaccine for Human Papillomavirus (HPV), has been free for girls since 2009. It currently costs $150 for boys aged nine to 14, and $225 for young men 15 and above. Not only will the vaccine become free for boys aged nine to 26, the type of vaccine is being updated to one that guards against nine strains of the virus.
The vaccine will be available as part of the standard immunization schedule in NWT schools between Grades 4 and 6, depending on the community. A Grade 9 catch-up program for students who may require a booster or are missing a dose will also be in place.
The HPV vaccine was a hot-button issue for Yellowknife Catholic Schools in previous years. In 2009, the school board voted against including the HPV vaccine in its school vaccination program. In 2013, the board unanimously voted to allow the vaccine for girls. Board chair Miles Welsh the vaccine for boys is something the board will discuss.
Young men who can’t access the vaccine in school will be able to make an appointment with their local public health centre to receive the vaccine for free up to the age of 26, according to NWT chief public health officer Andre Corriveau.
In 2012, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommended boys and young men receive the HPV vaccine. Since then, Corriveau said provinces and territories have slowly been expanding immunization to males.
“Like any new program it costs money, and it also involves more staff time and there’s logistical issues, so it took most provinces a while,” said Corriveau. “Everybody moves at their own pace, depending on their own capacity.”
The NWT’s expansion of immunization to boys follows announcements by B.C., New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador and the Yukon earlier this year to expand their HPV immunization programs to boys in September.
It will take a year to know the cost of the expansion, according to Corriveau. He estimates the cost of the vaccine is $60,000 dollars for girls, not including the cost of administering it.
The territory has seen a slow increase in the number of girls getting vaccinated against HPV. It is currently at 60 per cent and Corriveau estimates the numbers will be similar for boys once the fees are scrapped.
Candice Lys, executive director of FOXY (Fostering Open eXpression among Youth), a sexual and mental health promotion organization for young women that runs a parallel program for young men, said young men who come to FOXY wanting the vaccine are told to go to public health. While she said she has heard of some public health nurses providing the vaccine to boys who need it on an ad hoc basis, coverage is an improvement.
“It’s critical for being able to protect the whole North,” she said of the vaccine. “So we’re all for the idea of the vaccine being covered and being more accessible to everyone.”
HPV, a virus transmitted through skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity, is very common. Three out of four Canadians who are sexually active will get HPV at some point in their lives, according to a fact sheet from the Department of Health and Social Services.
HPV is usually not dangerous and usually goes away on its own, while certain strains of the virus heighten the risk of diseases including genital warts and cancer of the cervix, vulva and vagina, cancer of the penis and cancer of the throat and oral cavity.
Corriveau said certain cancers caused by HPV, such as throat and nasopharyngeal cancer, have been increasing for men over the past decade.
“It’s an opportunity for us to broaden our ability to prevent … an important form of cancer that can be quite serious,” he said of the decision to expand vaccination.
There are two vaccines authorized by Health Canada. Cervarix is only for females and Gardasil for both sexes. Gardasil is administered through two injections taken six months apart for children from the ages of nine to 14, and three injections (at 0, 2 and 6 months) for young adults aged 15 to 17.
Saskatchewan and Nunavut are the only province and territory that do not offer or have plans to offer free HPV vaccination for boys.