Opinion| Overdue But Young Males Eligible for Free HPV Vaccine in Ontario

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Figures aren’t available locally yet as to how many Grade 7 boys are receiving vaccination against the cancer-causing Human Papillomavirus (HPV) this year but if they are anything like that for girls, they probably will be in the 65 to 69 percent range, the Ontario average.

That is the figure Kelly Godson, the nurse from Algoma Public Health who is lead for the grade 7 program, gave me recently.

It was a long time coming, but Ontario this year began offering vaccination against HPV free of charge to all boys and girls in Grade 7 through school-based clinics run by local public health units.

The vaccine has been available to girls in the Algoma District since 2009.

Letters were sent by APH to all school boards indicating that the program was now available to boys and Godson said responses from parents were about equal to what was received for girls.

“We don’t have a percentage figure yet,” she said. “We will have to wait until we are completely done our second round because we are still picking up ones who were absent or missed on the first round.”

Clinics in regard to HPV are offered in schools twice a year, the vaccine being applied in two doses six months apart.

Godson said they were still far from getting full participation but she considered anything over 50 percent to be a bonus.

Godson said the virus can cause cervical, mouth and throat cancer in girls, mouth, throat and penile cancer in boys. Oral sex is involved in a very high percentage of people with mouth and throat cancers caused by HPV.

It was the sexual aspect that caused a stir in this city back in 2008, the Huron Superior District School Board voting 5-4 against allowing the vaccine to be administered in its schools.

Some board members preached abstinence as the way to prevent HPV, also suggesting that the vaccine would open the door to girls having sex, both suggestions, of course, being ridiculous.

After parents complained that they should be given the choice as to whether their children should receive the vaccine, as was the case with the Algoma District School Board which had voted to implement the program, Trustee Laurie Aceti, who had initially voted against the program, had a change of mind.

She suggested that in light of new information it would be prudent for the Huron Superior board to take another look at the issue.

This time, with Aceti switching her vote, girls in the Catholic system were given the right to the same protection as those in the public system.

Voting to allow the administration of the Ontario government-sponsored Gardasil program with informed parental consent were trustees Aceti, Lindsay Liske, Sandra Turco, John Caputo, and Conrad Bobiwash.

Voting against it were Kathleen Rosilius, Gerald Beerkins, Grace Tridico and Regis O’Connor.

That effectively took care of the girls in the area.

Dr. Peter Chow took up the fight for boys but, as can be seen from the lengthy time lapse between the vaccine being offered the two sexes, he didn’t get very far.

“It’s just incredible that we’re not jumping on it,” Chow, a general practitioner, told then Sault Star reporter Michael Purvis back in November 2011.

Chow told Purvis he thought oral sex was becoming more popular with teens, who falsely believed it was safe, and he became convinced boys needed the vaccine too after seeing two patients, both non-smokers in their 20s, diagnosed with tongue and throat cancer.

Scientists in the U.S. and Britain have for some time said HPV, and its spread through oral sex, is responsible for an increasing number of mouth and throat cancers – diseases once usually only seen in smokers.

Actor Michael Douglas got into the act on the international stage in 2013, essentially telling The Guardian newspaper in Britain that the cancer of the tongue from which he was recovering was caused by oral sex.

He did attempt to back away from that comment, Allen Burry, his publicist, releasing a statement explaining that the actor was just saying that oral sex can cause cancer, not that it necessarily led to his diagnosis.

“In a discussion with the newspaper, they talked about the causes of oral cancer, one of which was oral sex, which has been known for a while now,” Burry said.

The Guardian, of course, stuck with its take on the story, relying on the following quote from Douglas:

“Without wanting to get too specific, this particular cancer is caused by HPV (human papillomavirus), which actually comes about from cunnilingus.”

As I said in a column at the time, I didn’t really care who was right.

I was just really glad that Douglas made the statement because I thought in the end it could result in some real good through a very public and well-known face being attached to the fact that HPV affects males as well as females.

The World Health Organization (WHO), as well as public health officials in Australia, Canada, Europe, and the United States, for some time had recommended vaccination of girls against HPV to prevent cervical cancer and to reduce the number of treatments for cervical cancer precursors.

But most of them have been much slower in getting around to recommending the same for boys, even though they had approved the use of the vaccine for them.

However, that has been gradually changing, the preventive measure even coming to Ontario this year.

So better late than never.

Douglas was probably shocked when he saw his comments in print and I am sure his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, was as well.

But as I said at the time, they will have served a purpose by keeping the dangers of HPV, especially as they pertain to males, in the public eye.

Doug Millroy can be reached at dmillroy@gmail.com.

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