Dr. Milena Forte knows when it comes to vaccinations in Ontario, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many children to fall behind.
“We are really missing opportunities to vaccinate kids against HPV-related cancers,” Forte said. “We know that the vaccine is highly effective to prevent against cervical cancer, and it’s about 90 per cent effective when it’s delivered prior to age 17.”
For years Ontario public health units have been offering vaccines in schools for HPV, Hepatitis B, and Meningitis. But at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, those school-based programs stopped. Doctors are worried about how this will play out in the future, particularly when it comes to the cancers these vaccines are designed to help protect against.
“One of the ways to prevent these cancers, is to stop people from getting the virus that causes the cancers in the first place, so here we made all this head way and now we’re going back in time,” said Dr. Amanda Selk, an OBGYN, and president of the Society of Canadian Colposcopists.
Across the board, people are encouraged to speak their family doctors to check their immunization status. Often family doctors can order and administer these shots during regular doctor visits. But outside of that advice, not all public health units are catching up on these vaccinations in the same way for the kids who missed out on getting these shots in school.
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In Ottawa, public health has started to visit schools in person, in addition to offering community clinics. In Simcoe-Muskoka, school-based programs have not resumed, but the hope is for them to return in the fall of 2022.
In Toronto, public health has not been in the schools, but instead running mass clinics for these shots. However, if you missed out on the fall campaign, that option is now off the table as the program ended Oct. 30, 2021. That means a visit to a family doctor is one of the best options.
A recent study suggests that catching up on vaccinations that were missed is unlikely to happen without a coordinated school-based approach. For example, in Canada, numbers show that people are 3.7 times more likely to get the HPV vaccine when it’s offered in school.
Offering vaccines also levels the playing field and makes access more equitable for people regardless of their socioeconomic background. Part of the reason that school-based vaccination programs work said Forte, “Is that kids who don’t have access to primary care physicians can still get vaccinated. It eliminates that barrier of needing to access a physician’s office.”
While vaccinating children for COVID-19 is front and centre, doctors say they hope public health units can figure out a way to maximize school visits – if that ends up being a route they take, and potentially look at ways to offer the vaccines for both COVID-19 and others all at the same time for those who are eligible.
“As they go to schools, they can get the kids also vaccinated for HPV,” said Selk. “It’s much easier when you go to the people who need the vaccine, then asking for people to come to you.”
If you are unsure, or would like to check your child’s immunization status, you can do so through Toronto Public Health.