Health officials concerned as HPV vaccination rates drop

While a lot of attention is focused on the COVID-19 vaccine right now, vaccination rates for other viruses have dropped, including the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.

According to Public Health Sudbury and Districts (PHSD), it has seen a dramatic drop in the numbers.

"Definitely during the pandemic, a lot of our capacity was focused on dealing with the pandemic, and so our rates have decreased in the last year. So what we're doing right now is trying to get all the children and the students up to date on their vaccinations," said Emilie Gatien, a public health nurse.

She said they are putting an effort right now into encouraging everyone who might be eligible for a vaccine, including HPV, to give them a call or to speak to their healthcare provider.

According to their figures, in 2019 they were able to administer 3,325 doses of the HPV vaccine. That number dropped to 1,237 by 2020.

"It's a very common sexually transmitted infection so it's very important to get yourself protected," Gatien explained. "And those who are eligible, in general, it's women between the ages of nine and 45 years old and men between the ages of nine and 26 years old."

The health agency said there are many different types of HPV viruses and the type that can cause genital warts is not the same as the one that can cause different types of cancers. Those cancers have been known to show up years or even decades after someone's dealt with an HPV infection.

The vaccine comes in a two-dose or three-dose series and once someone's had it, it offers lifetime protection.

It's one reason why Dr. Vivien Brown, a Toronto family doctor and chair of HPV Week for the Federation of Medical Women of Canada, is hoping Canadians will take this seriously.

"I'm very concerned about the numbers because what we know is that if a vaccine becomes opportunistic, which means parents have to ask for it, they first have to know that there is a vaccine and that their children are due for it," Brown said. "And lots of people don't necessarily have a family doctor and lots of kids are falling through the cracks."

According to the federation, it's estimated that three out of four sexually active Canadians will develop HPV at some point over their lifetime.

There is a form of the virus that can lead to several different types of cancer including anal, vaginal, vulvar, penile, mouth, and throat. Since many Canadians often can't tell if they're carrying the virus, Brown said it's important to protect yourself.

"We need to catch up. We need to have parents understand they should go to a family doctor, go to a public health unit, maybe it's going to start in the schools, but Ontario has 34 public health units and they all do something differently," Brown added.

"HPV is a virus and it's common in about 75 per cent of adults. Most of us can clear the virus-like we clear a common cold but a certain percentage will have persistent HPV, and it's persistent HPV that can lead to six different types of cancers."

The federation has launched a website called Canada vs. HPV for anyone who wants more information about the virus and its vaccine.

"Canada has now followed the World Health Organization call to eliminate cervical cancer as a public health issue. World Health Organization said this in 2018 and again even with COVID-19 in 2020, that by doing screening, by doing Pap tests, by doing HPV vaccination, in the next 10-15 years we shouldn't be seeing cervical cancer anymore," Brown said.