Published in the Fall 2006 issue • Body Politics
Pop quiz: what is HPV and what can it do to your body? If you don’t know, you’re not alone. Only one in five Canadian teens between 14 and 17 years of age have heard of HPV, and of those who have, close to half (45 percent) don’t know about the potential health consequences. So listen up.
Human papilloma virus is the cause of both genital warts and cervical, anal and penile cancer. This virus is extremely common: up to 82 percent of sexually active adolescents are infected. There are over 100 different types of the virus, which may be low- or high-risk. Low-risk types cause genital warts; high-risk types cause cervical cancer in women. While genital warts are not life-threatening, they may cause pain, significant psychological problems and embarrassment — they do not look good and can be pretty scary (and contagious) for your partner(s). Cervical cancer, on the other hand, is life-threatening, even though it is often diagnosed early (by pap smear) and, if treated, is curable.
Recently, a vaccine to prevent HPV was approved for use in Canada. Gardasil, which is manufactured by pharmaceutical company Merck, has been shown to be effective in targeting the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer and ano-genital warts, and more rare forms of genital cancer. The vaccine is intended for girls and women aged nine to 26. Currently, the vaccine is approved only for women, but in the future, young men may receive the vaccine as it protects them if they have anal sex and will also prevent penile cancer, which, although rare, is a serious form of cancer. Vaccinating males can also help control the spread of HPV to women. Why is this important?
- Sexually active teens in Canada don’t use condoms consistently — or, in some cases, at all. One in four sexually active teens did not use any protection against sexually transmitted infections the last time they had sex.
- Using condoms can prevent the transmission of HPV, but it is possible to slip up, and with each act of unprotected sex, your risk of contracting HPV increases.
- Women between the ages of 15 and 25 are at the highest risk of contracting an HPV infection. While the risk of getting cervical cancer increases with age, on average, cervical cancer kills about 430 women in Canada per year. Four other women find out daily that they have it.
So should you be vaccinated? Before you run off to your healthcare provider, there are a number of issues to consider.
First, to be most effective, you should receive the vaccine before you have sex for the first time. You can still get vaccinated if you’ve already had sex, but you may have already been exposed to HPV. If you decide to be vaccinated, you’ll need three doses of the vaccine (each two months apart). It’s not clear how long the vaccination lasts, so you may have to have many doses over your lifetime. You’ll still need to have pap smears, as the vaccine prevents only two of the HPV viruses that cause cervical cancer, although you may need paps less frequently.
Second, girls under 16 years usually need permission from their parents or guardians to receive the vaccine, and some parents do not want their children vaccinated because they worry it will be considered granting them permission to have sex. While this is faulty logic, until you are of the age of consent, your parents get to choose what kind of medical treatment you can have.
If we were talking about a vaccine that prevented lung cancer, no one would worry that being vaccinated would encourage kids to smoke! But because this is related to young people having sex, adults who are on the right of the political spectrum may oppose the vaccine. Most of the ideas that conservative adults have about what teens should and should not be doing are actually dangerous to teens’ health — abstinence programs (just say “no” to sex) do not work. Teens who have been exposed to these programs tend to have sex anyway; they are just less informed and less likely to know where to get condoms and how to protect themselves. This vaccine could be a huge step forward in the prevention of a deadly disease. Because this is still a new medication, you should talk to your family doctor or nurse practitioner about the pros and cons of being vaccinated, and check out new research on the vaccine. It’s always best to be informed.
Here is a list of web resources that are not linked to the manufacturer of the vaccine, and which have information on HPV: