Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is transferred through skin-to-skin contact and sexual activity, and it can develop into several different cancers. Because most people will come across the HPV virus in their lifetime, the HPV vaccine was introduced into the Routine Immunization Program in schools across Alberta almost 10 years ago. For most people, the vaccine requires three injections over six months. Here, Dr. Judy MacDonald, medical officer of health in Calgary and the medical officer of health consultant for Alberta Health Services’ province-wide immunization team, discusses the importance of the vaccine.
Why is it recommended that children get the HPV vaccine?
HPV infections are actually some of the most common sexually transmitted infections there are. The vaccine is the best way to protect yourself against an HPV infection that could go on to cause various different types of cancer, including cervical, vaginal, anal and anogenital cancer.
Giving kids the HPV vaccine in Grade 5* will set them up to get the best protection against HPV infection. The whole idea is to prepare your immune system for exposure to HPV by producing antibodies so that, down the road, when you do get exposed, your body is prepared to fight.
How effective is the HPV vaccine in preventing the contraction of HPV?
It’s actually a super-effective vaccine. It protects against genital warts and also against a number of the strains or types of HPV that can go on to cause cancer. We know that it prevents 90 per cent of genital warts. Almost all of cervical cancer is caused by HPV, and we’re getting close to 90 per cent of cervical cancer prevented.
What are the risks associated with getting the vaccine?
This is a vaccine that typically does cause [some of the same reactions] that other vaccines do. For example, some discomfort at the injection site is pretty normal, as well as dizziness and fever, or some muscle aches and pain. Usually what that indicates is that your immune system is kicking in — your body sees this vaccine and is working on producing the antibodies for protection down the road.
How can a parent prepare their child to receive the vaccine?
I would suggest calmly talking to your child about what’s going to happen and how it will feel. You shouldn’t say things that aren’t true about it, like it’s not going to hurt. Also, make sure your child wears a short-sleeve shirt so that it’s easy to access the arm.
If you know that your child is afraid of needles — or if they’ve ever fainted or felt dizzy or vomited after a needle — you may want to let the school nurse know. The nurse can make arrangements with you about how best to immunize your child in that situation.
If a child is not immunized in Grade 5, are there other opportunities to get the vaccine in school?
If a parent isn’t sure they want their child to get vaccinated in fifth grade and they want to wait a little bit, [the vaccine is also offered at schools] in Grade 9. If the student still doesn’t get vaccinated at that point, they are eligible for free vaccines all the way through Grade 12.
Should an adult who has never been vaccinated for HPV consider being immunized?
Adults may also benefit from the HPV vaccine, but may have to pay for it. The vaccine covers against nine strains of the virus. If you’ve had a pap test that shows HPV infection, it is likely due to one strain of HPV. But you can still benefit from the HPV vaccine, as it can protect you against the other strains.
*Starting in the 2019 school year, the HPV vaccine program will be offered to Grade 6 students instead of Grade 5 students.
Approximately 75 per cent of people who aren’t immunized are likely to get an HPV infection at one point in their life.