I’m a mother of boys.
I’ll never guide a daughter through coming-of-age rituals like shopping for a bra, getting her period for the first time, or booking that first appointment for a pap smear.
But by no means does this leave me off the hook on the sexual and reproductive health aspects of parenting.
I’ve always spoken openly to my children about where babies come from, used the real words for body parts, and more recently, talked to my 13-year-old about consent. And now that Ontario is making the vaccine that prevents the human papillomavirus (HPV) available to boys as well as girls, you can bet I’ll be sure both my sons get that potentially life-saving immunization.
HPV is a virus common around the world – 3 in 4 sexually active Canadians will get HPV at some point in their lives - and it’s spread through sexual contact. It can lead to a number of cancers, including cervical cancer and penile cancer. Most people who carry the virus clear it. However, for some, they can carry the virus for decades without knowing it, putting sexual partners at risk. Sure, some may develop genital warts — also associated with HPV — and learn they’re carrying the virus at that time, but others may not find out until it develops into cancerous cells.
The good news is that the vaccine has been proven very effective at preventing the virus and its spread, and in dramatically reducing the risk of HPV-related cancers.
Because cervical cancer is the most common of these associated with HPV, the vaccine was first recommended to girls and women. It has been authorized in Canada since July 2006 for females ages nine to 26, and offered to Grade 8 girls in Ontario schools since 2007. However, that vaccine coverage only accounted for part of the picture, since boys and men can contract and spread HPV, as well as develop HPV-related cancers or genital warts.
So starting this academic year, the vaccine will also be offered free in schools to boys in Grade 7. These school-based clinics are run by public health nurses. If your child is unable to get it that year for any reason, he can still get immunized for free at a public health clinic until the end of Grade 12.
Yes. Yet these days when a new vaccine comes on the market — or in this case, is offered free to a new group for the first time — a lot of people get nervous. How fortunate we are to live in a time when it’s possible to fear a shot more than the disease it prevents! These days there are people who fear even routine childhood vaccinations because nowhere in our collective experience can this generation of parents remember a child contracting polio at the playground. This is such a luxury, but it’s dangerous thinking that has caused outbreaks of common and life-threatening diseases like measles. Similarly, there's no reason to let preventable cancers persist when there's a vaccine that can prevent the vast majority of cases.
In my research, I've learned that vaccines are only approved for use after they have been proven absolutely safe and effective. I also learned that the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), which advises the Public Health Agency of Canada on vaccines, is made up of top infectious disease specialists, pediatricians, immunologists, medical microbiologists, and experts in internal medicine and public health. And it’s not like the HPV vaccine just came out. It’s approved for use in more than 100 countries, and has been administered more than 175 million times.
Let’s be honest. Some of our discomfort around the HPV vaccine is that it forces us to think of our children as sexual beings. Sure, sex may be pretty far off the radar for your child in Grade 7, but the idea is to provide vaccine coverage for this group before they become sexually active. It’s the best way to protect the population as a whole from the diseases associated with HPV.
So while my kids are more interested in sports than dating just yet, they’ll be getting the vaccine at the earliest opportunity.
Fortunately, most cancers and genital warts caused by HPV infection can be prevented with the HPV vaccine used in Ontario.
If like me, you’ve got sons who are eligible to receive the HPV vaccine, I strongly urge you to get on board. This way you’ll ensure your boys both stay healthy and free of HPV-related diseases themselves, and avoid putting others at risk down the road. You can find more information on the Ministry of Health website.