Brown, Blake: COVID-19 priority pushes HPV vaccination off the radar, increases cancer risk for girls and women

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By Vivien Brown and Jennifer Blake

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With our children back in classrooms across the country, school and public health officials are urgently moving to vaccinate eligible teens against COVID-19. When schools closed their doors last year and moved to virtual learning across the country, all we could hope for is a vaccine that could help us stem the tide of this potentially deadly virus. How far we’ve come

While there’s a lot to celebrate about what health officials have achieved over the past year, we’ve lost sight of some of the other school vaccination programs (hepatitis B, meningitis, and human papillomavirus or HPV) that have been disrupted by the pandemic. These programs help protect our children and our communities from certain diseases. In some regions, the abrupt end of vaccination programs in schools has drastically reduced uptake. For example, the city of Hamilton Public Health Services reports that HPV vaccinations in schools were seven percent in 2020, up from 62 percent in 2019.[i] Doctors in Ontario have also reported the negative effects COVID-19 has on their vaccination services[ii]; General practitioners in Toronto reported nearly 33 percent fewer patient visits for vaccinations from March to December 2020.[iii]

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October 3-8, Canada is hosting its fifth annual HPV Prevention Week, an awareness and education initiative that encourages everyone to take action to stop the spread of HPV and its associated cancers. HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection that is responsible for almost all cervical cancer, but can also lead to anal cancer; Vaginal and vulvar cancer; Penile cancer; Mouth and throat cancer and genital warts. It is estimated that up to three in four sexually active Canadians will develop HPV at some point in their life.

Efforts to help children catch up on missed school vaccinations such as HPV have been largely regional, sporadic, and ineffective. We anticipate that already overstretched public health authorities will struggle to make significant profits. In many cases, catch-up clinics are held in community locations rather than schools, which puts a duty on parents to make sure their children are up to date on their vaccinations. In-school programs in all provinces and territories are the best and most effective way to ensure that HPV vaccination is readily available to every eligible child.

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More can and should be done at the provincial, territorial and local levels to ensure that children who missed their first or second dose of the HPV vaccine are not left behind. This means providing the public health service with the means to offer in-school catch-up clinics and to ensure that HPV vaccination is offered in schools during the 2021-22 school year. Parents can also help keep their child up to date with all routine vaccinations by contacting their local health authority or health care provider, including doctors, nurses, or pharmacists.

In 2020, the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer (CPAC) introduced the Action plan to eradicate cervical cancer in Canada aiming to eliminate cervical cancer by 2040.[iv] The World Health Organization has set itself the goal of eliminating cervical cancer worldwide within the next century.[v] Increasing vaccination in school HPV vaccination programs is a top priority to achieve this goal, and the lack of full cohorts puts it at risk. Dr. Craig Earle, vice president of cancer control at CPAC, said, “Canada has an ambitious goal but an achievable one. Vaccinating children against HPV today could help prevent more than 5,000 cases of cervical cancer by 2040. Raising vaccination rates is one of the best things we can do to ensure the next generation of Canadians are free from cervical cancer and other HPV-related cancers. “

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Ending the COVID-19 pandemic becomes and should remain an urgent public health priority for Canadians. However, we must not be wary of other serious health threats. Eliminating cervical cancer in our lifetime is within Canada’s reach, and we cannot risk that.

To learn more about HPV prevention at any age, visit CANADAvsHPV.ca.

Vivien Brown is Chair and Co-Founder of HPV Prevention Week in Canada and former President of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada (FMWC). Dr. Jennifer Blake is the executive director of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada (SOGC).

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