HPV: Why Women Choose To Get Vaccinated
Education and Advocacy When Carly Brenner, 29, first heard about the HPV vaccine, a series of three injections that significantly reduced the risk of developing cervical cancer, she knew she wanted to get it.
“It just seemed like common sense,” she says. “You vaccinate your kids against everything and now this new vaccine had come out against a huge women’s issue that I didn’t want to face.”
The human papillomavirus, commonly known as HPV, is spread through skin-to-skin contact in the genital area. The virus causes nearly all-cervical cancers – the second most common cancer in women between 20 and 44 in Canada.
“We don’t know what causes breast or colon cancer, but we can say unequivocally that 99 percent of cervical cancer is HPV related,” says Dr. Vivien Brown, Brenner’s doctor and the incoming President of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada (FMWC). She adds that HPV is even more strongly linked to cervical cancer than smoking is to lung cancer.
The latest form of the HPV vaccine, released nationally in February, is approved for both men (age 9 to 26) and women (age 9 to 45). The injection protects against nine types of HPV that, together, cause approximately 90 percent of cervical cancers.
“HIV was an epidemic when my mom was growing up and the epidemic with me growing up has become HPV and it’s something that nobody is aware of...”
Experts recommend that girls get the vaccine as early as possible, while their immune system is healthy and before they have been exposed to the virus through sexual activity. However, Brown highlights that the vaccine has been studied in and approved for women up until age 45.
“As you get older, your immune system isn’t as strong, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth taking the vaccine,” she says. Even if a patient has already been exposed to some strains of the virus, Brown says it’s unlikely that they have encountered all nine types covered by the vaccine so it will still offer some protection.
However, the incoming FMWC president emphasizes that women should act promptly.
“The younger you are when you get it – so if you’re 25 rather than 35 – the better your immune system responds,” she says. “So it’s a really good idea to take it now and increase your chance of preventing cervical cancer.”
Brenner was 21 and already sexually active when the vaccine was introduced in Canada. Though she didn’t fit the ideal age bracket, she still decided to get vaccinated and get as much protection as possible.
In addition to the vaccine, patients are also encouraged to get regular Pap tests to screen for any signs of cervical cancer.
“This type of cancer is preventable with regular screening,” says Dr. Marina Straszak-Suri, Chair of the Pap Test Campaign, an FMWC initiative that aims to increase awareness of cervical cancer and the importance of prevention. “Pap tests catch precancerous cells so they can be treated before they reach the stage of cancer.”
Though official guidelines recommend that women 21 and over should be getting a Pap test every one to three years, Brown says it’s best to speak with a doctor to find what’s best for each individual.
“It’s up to a woman and her doctor to discuss her personal risk and whether or not there should be something done differently in her case,” she says. “You can do a Pap test more frequently if you have reason to be concerned.”
A brighter future
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, approximately 1,500 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer this year and 380 will die – more than one per day.
“HIV was an epidemic when my mom was growing up and the epidemic with me growing up has become HPV and it’s something that nobody is aware of,” says Brenner, who works as a divemaster in Ontario. “It’s not an immediate killer but there is a way to prevent it from getting worse or from happening.”
“Everybody is being affected by this and the only way to prevent it is to start from the source and get vaccinated,” she says.