Study warns of spread of can­cer virus

Times Colonist - - Comment - LAWRIE McFARLANE jalm­c­far­

A new study by the U.S. Na­tional Cen­ter for Health Sta­tis­tics should con­cern ev­ery par­ent with teenage chil­dren. The au­thors found that nearly half of all Amer­i­can males age 18 to 59 were in­fected with hu­man pa­pil­lo­mavirus. Forty per cent of fe­males in the same age group had the virus.

Worse still, half of both sexes were in­fected with high-risk strains that cause about 31,000 cases of can­cer each year in the U.S. (Roughly 40 strains of the virus have so far been iden­ti­fied.)

Th­ese are shock­ing re­sults, all the more so be­cause NCHS stud­ies are pretty much the gold stan­dard.

It had been thought orig­i­nally that young women were most at risk. That is dis­proved by th­ese find­ings.

And the causal re­la­tion­ship be­tween high-risk strains of HPV and cer­tain can­cers — in par­tic­u­lar cer­vi­cal, throat and mouth can­cers — is clearly re­vealed.

The virus is trans­mit­ted pri­mar­ily by sex­ual con­tact (though there have been in­stances of preg­nant women pass­ing on the virus to their un­born child). The less dan­ger­ous strains are usu­ally cleared by the body’s im­mune sys­tem within 12 to 18 months. But the high-risk va­ri­eties can per­sist much longer, in some cases giv­ing rise to can­cer.

There is no vi­able treat­ment for HPV, but — good news at last — vac­ci­na­tion is highly ef­fec­tive. There is, though, a catch.

Vac­ci­na­tion doesn’t work if the in­di­vid­ual has al­ready been in­fected. This means, in prac­tice, that it must be con­ducted at age 11 or later, but be­fore any sex­ual con­tact be­gins.

B.C. pro­vides free vac­ci­na­tion for girls in Grade 6 or older. Start­ing in Septem­ber, boys of the same age group will also be of­fered HPV shots.

This is at once a bless­ing, and for many par­ents, a dilemma. Giv­ing 15-year-olds a vac­cine in­tended to pro­tect them against a sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­ease can feel like rob­bing them of their child­hood.

Some par­ents might even fear they are en­cour­ag­ing sex­ual be­hav­iour if they have their kids vac­ci­nated. Bet­ter to wait un­til later.

But later, un­for­tu­nately, might be too late. Young­sters th­ese days are al­ready sex­u­al­ized by so­cial-me­dia trolls and In­ter­net pornog­ra­phy that would have hor­ri­fied ear­lier gen­er­a­tions. No child is safe from this on­slaught.

And look once again at the num­bers. If four out of 10 women in the U.S., and nearly half of the men, are in­fected, it’s a safe bet the same is true in Canada.

We’re not talk­ing about pro­tect­ing our kids against a re­mote pos­si­bil­ity. The risk fac­tor for HPV far ex­ceeds any­thing we as­so­ciate with other pre­ventable dis­eases, such as measles or mumps.

Of course, that raises an­other is­sue — the grow­ing un­will­ing­ness of some par­ents to have their chil­dren in­oc­u­lated against any­thing.

Some have been mis­led by claims that vac­cines cause autism. This is a thor­oughly false al­le­ga­tion for which the physi­cian re­spon­si­ble had his li­cence re­moved.

Yet the lie lives on. You need to vac­ci­nate at least 90 per cent of a given pop­u­la­tion to sup­press in­fec­tious dis­or­ders. Thanks in part to clueless “anti-vaxxers,” we’re no longer meet­ing that tar­get.

Hence the cur­rent flare-up of measles in Europe, which has made thou­sands ill and killed 17. Hence also the re­cent out­breaks of mumps, measles and whoop­ing cough in the U.S.

The hard facts are th­ese: With­out vac­ci­na­tion, a good chunk of our chil­dren will con­tract HPV at some point in their lives. And us­ing those Amer­i­can sta­tis­tics as a base­line, 3,000 Cana­di­ans will die each year of can­cers di­rectly re­lated to the virus. That’s close to the an­nual num­ber of prostate or breast-can­cer deaths.

For par­ents ag­o­niz­ing over vac­ci­nat­ing their chil­dren against HPV, th­ese fig­ures speak for them­selves.


Robert Fox, 42, con­tracted and sur­vived throat can­cer that de­vel­oped from an HPV in­fec­tion, the virus best known for caus­ing cer­vi­cal can­cer in women. A study has found that al­most half of Amer­i­can men age 18 to 59 are in­fected.

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