Canada’s first observance of its new HPV Prevention Week, from October 1-7, established the country as a leader among other nations in its commitment to solving, once and for all, this major public health issue.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection globally, with more than 80 percent of sexually active adults being exposed to it in their lifetime. Chronic HPV infection is directly implicated in the development of multiple cancers in both men and women. And we have the tools today to defeat it.

A pivotal moment

“We’re at a real turning point in Canada right now with regards to HPV awareness and prevention,” says Dr. Jennifer Blake, CEO of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada. “We’ve made it past the time, as exists with any new innovation, where people are skeptical of whether it will work. We now know definitively that we can prevent cancer with the HPV vaccine.”

HPV directly causes anal cancer and oropharyngeal (throat) cancer in both men and women, penile cancer in men, and is the primary cause of cervical cancer, which kills one Canadian woman every day. In each of these cases, prevention is better than treatment. “We shouldn’t be in a cancer control frame of mind,” says Dr. Blake. “We should be in a cancer prevention frame of mind. We need, as a country, to begin to imagine that we could potentially eradicate cervical cancer by treating it as an infectious disease.”

Education is the key

Despite vaccination programs across the country, too many Canadians remain unvaccinated and uninformed about the basic realities of HPV. “A lot of people don’t really know the mechanisms of HPV and cervical cancer, or what the purpose of Pap tests and vaccination are,” says writer, YouTuber, and former Sexual Health Program Coordinator for the Government of Nunavut, Anubha Momin. “But it’s really very simple to explain. You get the Pap test to detect pre-cancer, and you get the vaccination to prevent cancer. If people understood that, and if they knew that HPV is incredibly common, I’m sure they would feel a lot more strongly about getting the vaccination.”

Building on that understanding is the necessary first step to any real change. “The public needs to be on board if this change is going to happen,” says Dr. Blake. “If Canadians stand up and say, ‘Yes, this is what we want for ourselves, for our daughters, for our sons’ — we could do it.”

That’s why HPV Prevention Week is such a win. Not because HPV issues will be solved in one week, but because it lays the groundwork for what needs to happen in the next fifty-one. “An awareness week focuses our attention and reminds all of us, physicians and patients alike, to not be complacent the rest of the year,” says Dr. Vivien Brown, Past President of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada, which played a major role in spearheading the initiative.

“HPV-related cancers can be prevented,” continues Dr. Brown. “But only if we take the appropriate steps.”