Opinion: How the Pandemic is Leading to Lost HPV Vaccination Cohorts in Adolescents and Why It Matters

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MONTREAL – With our children back in classrooms across the country, school and health officials are making an urgent effort to vaccinate appropriate teens against COVID-19.

While there is certainly a lot to celebrate about what health officials have achieved over the past year, we have lost sight of some of the other school vaccination programs for hepatitis B, meningitis, and human papillomavirus or HPV caused by the pandemic.

In some regions, the abrupt end of vaccination programs in schools has drastically reduced uptake.

For example, in Alberta, fewer than 10 percent of eligible 12-year-old girls received their second dose of HPV vaccine in 2020, compared with more than 65 percent in 2019.

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 related cancers.

HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection that is responsible for almost all cervical cancer, but it 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 overburdened public health authorities will struggle to generate significant profits.

In many cases, catch-up clinics are held in communities rather than schools, making parents responsible for making sure their child is 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.

More 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 resources to offer in-school catch-up clinics and to ensure that HPV vaccination is offered in schools during the 2021-2022 school year.

Parents can also help keep their child up to date with all routine vaccinations by contacting their local public health facility or health care provider, including a doctor, nurse, or pharmacist.

In 2020, the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer launched the Cervical Cancer Eradication Plan of Action in Canada with the goal of eradicating cervical cancer by 2040.

The World Health Organization has set itself the goal of eliminating cervical cancer worldwide within the next century. 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.

“Canada has an ambitious but achievable goal. Vaccinating children against HPV today could help prevent more than 5,000 cervical cancer cases by 2040, ”said Dr. Craig Earle, vice president, fight cancer, at the partnership.

“Increasing 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.”

Ending the COVID-19 pandemic should remain an urgent public health priority for Canadians. However, we must not beware of other serious health threats.

Eliminating cervical cancer in our lifetime is within Canada’s reach, and we cannot risk that.

Dr. 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 CEO of the Society of Obstetricians & Gynecologists of Canada (SOGC).

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