Time to get smart about good medicine
This appeared in the St. John’s (N.L.) Telegram:
If you could get an injection — or a series of injections — and avoid developing a potentially life-threatening cancer later in life, would you get the shot?
Probably, right? Now, imagine you have to get that shot before you’re sexually active, to short-circuit and reduce the possibility of getting infected with HPV, the human papilloma virus. HPV is a group of 100 or so viruses, with more than 40 of them transferred through sexual contact.
There are vaccines for HPV, but they’re not effective if the virus is already established. Since it is often spread sexually, it’s ideal if the vaccine is administered early. The Canadian Cancer Society estimates that 75 per cent of sexually active adults will be infected with HPV at least once in their lifetimes.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, until last week, the provincial government paid to have girls in Grade 6 receive the HPV vaccine. But only girls. If parents wanted to have their sons vaccinated, they had to pay.
While inoculating slightly more than half of the school-aged population may be a cost-effective way to address the biggest cancer risk from HPV, it’s far from inclusive or complete. Both men and women can get HPV, which can cause vaginal warts and lead to cancers of the genitals, mouth and throat, although the most common cancer is cervical cancer in women. Inoculation has been found to reduce the number of HPV-related cancers by 70 to 84 per cent.
But the female-only program risked being a form of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The policy suggested those who engage in different kinds of relationships aren’t worthy of the same protections as those who take part in more traditional sexual relationships.
That changed last week, when the province added HPV vaccination for boys to a suite that includes inoculations for meningitis, Hepatitis B, Tetanus, Diphtheria and Pertussis.
The move will cost a virtually insignificant $360,000 a year. Cast against the savings in reductions in future cancer cases, it’s a stitch in time that will save hundreds of thousands of health-care dollars. And don’t forget the pain and suffering it will prevent as well.