By the end of 2015, four out of Canada’s ten provinces agreed to make the vaccine for Human Papillomavirus (HPV) free for certain groups of boys, in addition to the already-provided free vaccinations for girls.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, according to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Because HPV has the potential to lead to cervical cancer in women, Canada has offered free vaccinations to young women for many years. Because men cannot get cervical cancer, these free vaccinations were not extended to boys. However, HPV can cause many other problems for both men and women.
“Nearly all sexually active people will get [HPV] at some time in their life,” according to the CDC. “Although most HPV infections go away on their own without causing problems, HPV can cause men to develop genital warts, or some kinds of cancer. Getting vaccinated against HPV can help prevent these health problems.”
Because of the risks for men, several provinces have been introducing or discussing programs to extend free vaccinations to boys. CBC reports that Alberta, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and British Columbia have introduced programs to make the vaccine free for some boys as well as some young men under the age of 26. The province of Manitoba has also announced plans to introduce a similar program in September 2016.
For individuals who are not covered under these free vaccination programs, the HPV vaccine can cost as much as $200 per injection, and immunization sometimes requires as many as two or three injections. Many people are still opting to pay this price for the immunization, feeling that it is worth it considering the major health problems that may result from HPV, as well as the large majority of sexually-active people who have the virus. However, many people also face financial barriers that make them unable to afford the immunization, even if they would be willing to pay for it.
Free vaccination programs remove the financial barrier and help boys and men who are worried about possible HPV infection seek out prevention without having to worry about their ability to afford it. B.C.’s program is specifically designed for “vulnerable” boys and men who have more reason to be concerned about the virus. These vulnerable men, according to the provincial government, include men who have sex with men and men who are “street involved.”
While these programs have been spread to four (and soon five once Manitoba’s begins) provinces, that still leaves five provinces and three territories where people are paying hundreds of dollars out of their own pockets in order to vaccinate against an extremely common and potentially life-altering virus. Advocates have been working to convince provincial governments in the remaining provinces and territories to expand their free HPV immunization programs to include men, but have struggled to find success.
Some critics of the programs (in addition to the usual “anti-vaccination” protestors, who are against immunization in general for various reasons) have expressed concern about the economic cost of providing free HPV vaccinations for men. However, studies have largely debunked this financial concern, suggesting that extending the free vaccinations will actually save the government money in the long run and be economically beneficial to the country by reducing financial burden on the health care system.
“A study published in April, however, challenges the idea that HPV vaccines are too cost-prohibitive to make available universally,” reports
The Globe and Mail. “Toronto researchers created a comprehensive model that found including boys in public HPV vaccination programs could save the health-care system between $8-million and $28-million in their lifetimes.”
With research that projects long-term financial benefits of expanding immunization to include men, and five provinces already adopting programs, the future of HPV prevention looks hopeful. Canadian men who wish to protect themselves from the virus may soon no longer have to worry about the financial implications of vaccination.
In the meantime, men who live in areas where the vaccine is not free may still want to consider paying for it, due to the health implications of HPV infection. Men who are at higher risk of HPV infection, including men who engage in sex with other men and men whose immune system is compromised because of other illness or medication, are encouraged to talk to a doctor about potential vaccination.
For anyone worried about the safety of vaccinations, the CDC reports that the HPV vaccine is safe for use.
“HPV vaccine has been studied very carefully and shown to be safe” according the CDC. “Nearly 80 million doses of HPV vaccine have been distributed in the U.S. since 2006, and no serious safety concerns have been linked to HPV vaccination [besides] common, mild side effects [including] pain in the arm where the shot was given, fever, dizziness, and nausea.”
It is also important to recognize that the HPV vaccination is not 100 per cent effective at preventing HPV, as it does not prevent against all strains of the virus, and also does not help people who have already been infected. The vaccines target the strains that most commonly cause serious complications such as genital warts and cancer, but it is still possible to contract a different strain of HPV after the immunization, so people still need to be aware and cautious about potential infection even after being immunized.
However, the immunization does substantially improve someone’s chances of avoiding HPV infection, as well as avoiding the further health problems that can come from it. Because of this substantial protection, it is still more than worthwhile to get the vaccination if it is free, and still worth considering if it is not, especially for those in vulnerable groups.
Additional information on HPV and other Sexually Transmitted Infections can be found on cdc.gov