B.C.’s school immunization program for the human papillomavirus (HPV) is being credited for reducing rates of cervical pre-cancer in woman throughout the province by more than half.
A new study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases says those who took part in the program to prevent the sexually transmitted infection had a 57 per cent reduction in incidence of pre-cancer cells compared to unvaccinated women.
The program has been in place in public schools for 12 years. The first groups of women to be vaccinated when they were in Grade 6 were compared to those who weren’t for the study, which reviewed data from more than 35,000 women.
Dr. Gina Ogilvie, a senior research adviser at B.C. Women’s Hospital, says the study is further evidence that highlights the vaccine’s positive impact.
“Imagine an opportunity to prevent your child from getting cancer, and it’s safe and effective as well,” she said.
HPV is common in both men and women, and has been identified as the cause of almost all cervical cancers — a disease that kills 50 women each year in B.C.
While most HPV infections can clear up on their own, some pre-cancerous lesions can develop into cancer if not treated.
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Studies have shown the vaccine can also protect against anal cancer and some rare penile cancers.
HPV immunization is offered to children across Canada between grades 4 and 7, according to the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer.
B.C. originally offered the vaccine to just girls when it began its program in 2008, but expanded the offer to boys in 2016.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said while many boys and girls take advantage of the free, publicly funded vaccine, not all children are being inoculated.
“Between two-thirds and seven-tenths of Grade 6 students are getting immunized,” he said. “We can do much better than that.
“We’re there to do it, it’s offered for free. The results of this study show its value.”
In a statement, Education Minister Rob Fleming said the study reinforces the importance of partnering the school and health systems to reduce disease.
“The decline we are seeing in HPV-related cancer rates highlights how strong partnerships between school districts and health authorities can significantly improve the well-being of B.C. students,” Fleming said.
The province recently introduced a mandatory vaccination reporting program to combat growing cases of measles in B.C.
—With files from Catherine Urquhart and the Canadian Press