As parents of students returning to school across Canada get reminders about the HPV vaccine, there is growing evidence that inoculation programs around the world have been highly effective.

A recently-published study from Australia found that, in the 10 years since the vaccine against the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus, or HPV, was first released, the rates of infections have plummeted. The systematic review of published data found that, in countries with a high HPV vaccine uptake, infection rates fell by up to 90 per cent. A significant reduction in cervical abnormalities was also reported among women who received the vaccine.

And in a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in July, Alberta researchers found that young women who were immunized as girls through the school inoculation program had a 50 per cent lower risk of potentially cancerous cervical abnormalities. 

HPV infections can cause warts and lead to cancers of the cervix, anus, vagina, penis, head and neck.

The publicly-funded HPV vaccination programs for girls across Canada, as well as boys in some provinces, aim to reduce the rates of HPV infections by inoculating children before they become sexually active. Older females and some older males can also get vaccinated.

Two types of HPV vaccines are approved for use in Canada: Gardasil and Cervarix. Gardasil protects against four virus subtypes that cause cervical cancer and genital warts, and Cervarix protects against the two subtypes that cause the majority of cervical malignancies.

Gardasil is approved for use in females aged 9 to 45, and males aged 9 to 26. Cervarix is approved for use in females between the ages of 10 and 25, but is currently not approved for boys and young men.

All provinces and territories in Canada offer the HPV vaccine to girls, starting between Grades 4 and 7. The vaccine is also currently available to boys in Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and Alberta.

In British Columbia, only boys who are considered “vulnerable” to HPV infections, including those who have sex with men, or have HIV, are offered the vaccine. According to a Vancouver Sun report, the restriction has prompted a human rights complaint from 13-year-old twin boys, who want the province to extend the school vaccination program to all genders. 

With files from The Canadian Press