Yukon to join provinces in vaccinating against HPV

The Yukon is accepting federal money to begin human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccinations for young girls.

The Yukon is accepting federal money to begin human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccinations for young girls.

The Yukon will receive $284,000 over three years to vaccinate against certain types of the virus that cause cervical cancer and other genital illnesses.

Each vaccination takes three shots with a three-month interval between them.

And each set of shots costs $404.

The vaccine, known under the brand name Gardasil, will routinely be offered to girls in Grade 5. But for the first year of vaccinations, beginning in March 2009, girls in Grades 6 and 7 will also have the option to be vaccinated to allow the territory to catch up.

The vaccine is voluntary and will require a parent’s consent.

Gardasil is a relatively new vaccine developed by the pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. and there are no studies on its longevity.

But it has proven successful in short-term tests.

“The science is there,” said Dr. Brendan Hanley, the Yukon’s medical officer of health. “The evidence is there. The practical experience is there.”

There’s little doctors can do but wait if they want to find out whether the shot will need a booster down the road, he said.

“That sort of information is just not going to be available for a while,” said Hanley.

This is normal vaccination protocol, he said.

“Will you need a booster in 10 years? Well, the first few years show a very robust response,” he said.

“That’s not unusual to not know how (long) it’s going to last.”

Gardasil has also drawn concern because Pap tests have been relatively effective at detecting abnormal cells and signs of cancer.

But there’s still room for improvement.

“A lot of the literature and the proponents of the vaccine would argue that (Pap tests) are missing 30 per cent of (women),” said Hanley.

And while Pap tests have helped the battle against cervical cancer by leaps and bounds, they’ve been the main preventive measure for some time.

“This is after 30 years of trying to reduce cervical cancer,” said Hanley.

Gardasil will likely have a wider reach than Pap tests.

“A vaccine tends to be the great equalizer,” he said. “If you have a good program, you get all people.”

The vaccine could also reduce the necessity of Pap tests.

“No recommendations are being made to change Pap tests,” said Hanley.

“But in the years to come, the cohort of vaccinated women may require less screening or a different approach to screening,” he said.

It may also reduce the costs of having women visiting a gynecologist, he said.

A vaccine is also more far-reaching in its prevention role than Pap tests.

“(Gardasil) is primary prevention,” said Hanley.

“So if we’re talking about lung cancer, secondary prevention would be finding a tumour more effectively. Primary prevention is stopping smoking,” he said.

Pap tests would only be a form of secondary prevention because it’s preventing the damage of cervical cancer by detecting its traces earlier, not eliminating its causes, he said.

There are four types of human papilloma virus, two of which cause 70 per cent of cervical cancer.

The other two cause genital warts.

Cervical cancer is the second most dangerous cancer, after breast cancer, for women, said Hanley.

The Yukon’s health officials were waiting on recommendations from the Territorial Health Committee on Immunization and the National Advisory Committee on Immunization before finalizing their decision.

They also watched closely as every province in Canada signed onto the program. The Yukon is the first territory to begin vaccinations for the human papilloma virus.

“It always helps to see what the big provinces are doing,” said Hanley.

And while Australia currently vaccinates young boys, studies show men are much less susceptible to the virus, he said.

“We don’t have enough data to justify (vaccinating men against the virus).

Contact James Munson at

jamesm@yukon-news.com.

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