Spread words, not diseases

If anyone had said a few years ago that I would be writing a column about sexually transmitted disease and safe sex practices for twenty-something readers, I would have questioned their sanity. My own thirty-something kids would have laughed out loud.

But that is just what I am about to do, because this particular STD is not being talked about enough and the number of lives being threatened by it has “quadrupled” in the last decade and a half, according to statistics.

What if there was a simple vaccine for cancer, same as polio, chicken pox or measles? Wouldn’t that be hailed as the greatest medical discovery of our times and wouldn’t people be rushing to get themselves and their families inoculated?

As it turns out, there actually is a vaccine that protects people against cancer – many kinds of cancers – but, no, people are not stampeding doctors’ offices in a rush to get vaccinated.

It is the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.

HPV is the most prevalent sexually transmitted infection in the world today. There are over 100 different strains, although most are completely harmless. Vaccination protects against four types considered to be high risk and which cause 70 per cent of all cervical cancers.

That statistic is the reason why there is now an HPV inoculation program through the Canadian public school systems for girls ages 9 to 13. But there is a problem with that program – it targets only girls, which is a solution to only half the problem. HPV, since the 1980’s, has been known to cause venereal cancers in both sexes, such as penile and anal cancer.

And now there is a new urgency. As of 2007, the list of cancers caused by an HPV infection is growing and conclusively includes throat, neck, head and mouth cancers because of the rise in oral sex, falsely believed by many to be a form of “safe sex” or at least safer than sexual intercourse.

But most alarming of all is the fact that, although to date it has not definitively been proven, HPV is being implicated in other forms of more common cancers such as lung cancer.

Canadian health authorities recommend that all females ages 9 to 26 get the HPV vaccination, and all males between 9 and 45. The problem is that, despite the public school program, 30 per cent of girls are still not being immunized and while there are no statistics available for men or boys in Canada, in the states the American Center for Disease Control says that 80 per cent of American males are not getting immunized for HPV.

There are likely a few reasons why the HPV immunization rate is so low, including the fact that some parents think getting an STD vaccination, cancer risk or not, might encourage early sexual activity. Of course most reasonable people know that the one has nothing much to do with the other.

Also, some boys and adults might not be covered for the cost of the HPV vaccine which is about $400 dollars for those with no supplemental health insurance.

But the scientist who actually discovered the connection that an HPV infection has to throat, neck and head cancer, Maura Gillison, believes there is a much more fundamental, but no less mysterious reason why people are not getting vaccinated.

In a 2013 issue of The Journal of Science and Nature, Gillison expressed her frustration that society in general just doesn’t seem to be getting the HPV message.

“… Though I talk about it constantly in public settings and the lay press, it amazes me that it’s often as if no one has ever heard of it,” said Gillison in November.

The fact is that HPV related cancers are on the rise. The American Society of Clinical Oncologists estimates that by 2020, the number of HPV-related throat cancers will far surpass the percentage of HPV-related cervical cancers.

My own family doctor says, in her opinion, regardless of age or gender, anyone who is sexually active should be vaccinated.

So, get vaccinated if you haven’t already, and start spreading the word instead of the disease.

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