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Jennifer Ranallo doesn’t have to worry about getting the world’s most common sexually transmitted infection. She was vaccinated against the human papillomavirus three years ago, thanks to her mother’s fear of the virus.
“My older sister had a growth because she had the HPV virus and so when my mom found out she got very anxious and nervous and so she had us all vaccinated,” she said. Ranallo, 23, is part of a very small group of women who have received the shot.
Only one in 10 Canadian women between the ages of 18-25 have received the vaccine against the virus, according to a Leger Marketing poll. Vaccination programs were set up three years ago by the federal government in order to prevent HPV, which is the leading cause of cervical cancer.
The program targets girls between the ages of eight and 11 in the hopes of immunizing them before they have had a sexual encounter. While the poll recognized that the sample group was above the vaccination program age, it still raised alarm bells in the media.
“This is a cancer that we treat and we see all too many women suffer and die from. So we try to take any measure of prevention,” says Susie Lau, a gynaecological oncologist at the Jewish General Hospital’s Segal Cancer Centre. She adds that the vaccine isn’t enough and that women should also have a regular Pap test. “The two of them coupled together can prevent up to 90 per cent of cervix cancer,” she said.
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, 1,300 women across Canada will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2010. Those 1,300 will result in an estimated 370 deaths this year alone.
Karen Eryou, 48, is one of the lucky ones. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer two years ago by a fluke. The mother of two had just found a family doctor who wasn’t aware of any of her family’s medical history and decided to have her sent for a variety of tests.
Eryou explains that the first question she was asked by her doctor was when she last had a mammogram. When Eryou told her she had never had one, her doctor encouraged her to go for several tests that would check for a variety of different things. After having blood tests, Eryou’s doctor asked if she had ever had a Pap test. Again, the answer was no and her doctor insisted she have one immediately.
Six months later, Eryou was in an operating room having her uterus removed because of stage two cervical cancer. Since then, she’s been an advocate for the vaccination.
“We need to get the word out there, we need to discuss it and parents need to understand that yes, there are vaccinations out there that are available,” says Eryou. “It doesn’t mean that your child is going to become promiscuous or jump into sexuality mode just because they have the vaccine. The vaccine is a long-term health benefit for them in order to avoid the road that I went on.”
Around 75 per cent of Canadians will have at least one HPV infection in their lifetime but most go unnoticed.
This is one of the reasons Abby Lippman is against mass HPV vaccinations. The McGill professor in the department of epidemiology, biostatistics and occupational health thinks that the media and government are treating HPV like an epidemic.
Levels of cervical cancer in Canada are not high, explains Lippman, who acknowledges, however, that the HPV infection is common in the country.
“Yes, you better believe it is,” says Lippman. “But, most of the people who get infected with HPV clear it all by themselves and are perfectly fine.”
Lippman worries that there are still many unanswered questions about the vaccine’s effectiveness. There is currently no Canadian database to record the adverse effects of the injection, which according to the vaccine Gardasil’s website can include fever, nausea, vomiting, headache, pain, itching and swelling.
Lippman thinks that the process is largely unnecessary because of the cost of mass vaccinating against something that the majority of people’s bodies can beat naturally.
“In Canada, the government paid money for three years to institute school-age programs. If you’ve had sex you’ve likely been infected with HPV and you’re likely to get rid of it and not even know you had the virus,” Lippman says.
In 2007, the federal government set aside $300 million for three years of HPV vaccination programs. It was a landmark decision as the most costly vaccination for taxpayers in Canadian history. This is the first year that the Quebec government will foot the bill. According to Nathalie Levesque of the Quebec Health and Social Services Ministry, it will cost $25 million for this school year alone.
For those too old to get the vaccine through the school system, it is available at local CLSCs or through your doctor. However, the shots cost between $400 to $500 for the three injections.
Ranallo had to pay for hers, and she thinks it was worth every penny to minimize her risk of cervical cancer.
BY THE NUMBERS
1 in 10 Canadian women between the ages of 18-25 have received the HPV vaccine
1,300 Canadian women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer this year
370 will die from cervical cancer this year