Why We Must Vaccinate Boys in the North

by Claire Styffe

I still remember getting my first HPV vaccine; I was in the 6th grade and it was the first year that the school-based HPV vaccination program had been implemented in Canada.  It was explained to us that only girls would be receiving the vaccine, and for several years after I mistakenly believed that HPV was only transmissible to females.

Surely, I thought, if boys could get HPV, they too would receive the vaccine.

But HPV isn’t a virus that only women can contract.  In fact, HPV is the most commonly transmitted STI and is an equal opportunity infection, affecting both men and women.  Infection with HPV can lead to genital warts and cancers of the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis, anus or oral cavity.  Due to the high rate of HPV infections leading to cervical cancers, the HPV vaccine was first developed, tested and offered for women, but that doesn’t mean that men aren’t at risk at developing cancers from HPV infection.

Research has been conducted investigating HPV immunization for boys, and there now exists a safe and effective vaccine for protecting boys against HPV.  In fact, the same school-based, publicly-funded immunization program that provided girls with their HPV vaccinations has now been extended to include boys; as of 2017, all provinces across Canada now offer school based HPV vaccinations for everyone.  

There does, however, still exist severe disparities in accessing HPV vaccination: the Northern territories of Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut only offer publicly funded school based HPV vaccines for girls.

This is problematic for a number of reasons.  Firstly, boys in the Northern territories are not receiving the protection available, and are thus at a higher risk of developing HPV and as a result, a form of cancer.  This issue is only exacerbated by the fact that rates of female vaccination in the North is remarkably low, thus lowering herd immunity and increasing the chance that HPV can be spread.

The refusal to vaccinate boys in Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut not only creates an inequality between girls and boys in the North, but also aggravates the gap in health care between the Northern territories and the Southern provinces. The Northern territories are primarily rural with little access to tertiary medical care and have increased rates of depression, suicide, and smoking when compared to the rest of Canada. Vaccinating boys and reducing rates of cancer could help minimize this already serious health gap.

Perhaps with proper federal funding, boys in the Northern territories could be vaccinated against HPV and this disparity across gender and geographic lines could be rectified.  We mustn’t make the same mistake I did as a child and assume that HPV is a problem that only women need worry about. HPV is an equal opportunity infection and boys should have an equal opportunity to be protected.

Claire Styffe Headshot.jpg

Claire Styffe is a U3 student currently pursuing a degree in Cell and Molecular Biology as well as Urban Systems Geography.  She is fascinated by global health and has a particular interest in preventing and minimizing the spread of infectious diseases.