By Dr. Jiang
As a family physician, an important part of my job is making sure that my patients are up to date with the vaccinations that they need to be healthy.
As October 1 – 7 is HPV Prevention Week, the topic for this health story is the HPV vaccine.
HPV stands for human papilloma virus. There are hundreds of strains of the virus that can infect humans, of which over 40 types of the virus can infect the genital tract. It is a sexually transmitted infection that affects both men and women. Up to 75 per cent of Canadians can get HPV at some point in their lives.
Scientists have identified two HPV strains that can cause genital warts, and at least 15 high-risk strains that can cause cancers. Most of the time, people who contract the virus don’t develop symptoms and will clear the virus on their own without knowing they had it. However, if they do catch high-risk strains, it may lead to cervical, vulvar, and vaginal cancers in women, penile cancers in men, and genital warts, anal, and oral cancers in both genders. Cervical cancer is almost 100 per cent caused by HPV, and pap smears are a way to look for this cancer in women in Canada.
The good news is that there are vaccines available in Canada that are effective at protecting against cancers and warts caused by HPV. The HPV vaccine was first approved in 2006, and currently, there are two vaccines available in Canada: Cervarix and Gardasil-9. Cervarix protects against two high-risk strains of HPV, while the Gardasil-9 protects against nine high-risk strains.
Gardasil-9 is the most commonly used HPV vaccine in Canada now and is effective for protecting against over 90 per cent of cancers and warts caused by the virus. The HPV vaccine was added to the publicly-funded school vaccination program in 2007 for girls and was added for boys in 2017.
The Gardasil-9 vaccine is available to both males and females nine years of age and over, given in 2 or 3 doses over a six-month period. It is an effective and safe vaccine with few side effects. The most common side effects can include soreness, redness, and swelling in the arm after the injection; and headache, mild fever, and muscle or joint pains that resolve after a few days.
There are some misconceptions about the vaccine and the most common one is that giving the vaccine to children and adolescents will make them sexually active earlier. There are a number of studies that show that this is not the case. In fact, it’s better to give the vaccines to children before they are exposed to the virus.
I have also had patients ask me, “if I already had HPV before, isn’t it too late for me to get the vaccine now?” The answer is it’s never too late. The vaccine isn’t a cure for the strains of HPV that you may currently have or had in the past, but the vaccine will protect you from contracting strains in the future that can lead to cancer.
The bottom line is that no matter the age or gender, I encourage all of my patients to get the HPV vaccine. It’s the best protection against cancers caused by HPV. If you have any questions, you can visit hpvinfo.ca for more information or speak to your physician.