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Thank goodness for HPV vaccines!

April 7 2022 | Written by Rheanna Summers (She/Her)

In middle school, I remember my friends lining up to get the HPV vaccine. It was quite the event, with nerves running quite high. And as someone who doesn’t like needles, you can only begin to imagine how scared I was. That is, until I was told that I would not be receiving the vaccine after all. For various reasons, my parents had decided against it! Phew, dodged a bullet with that one. Fast forward 10 years, and I’m now wishing I had gotten the vaccine like so many others had!

Truth is, among sexually active people, vaccines that target Human Papillomavirus (HPV) have been proven to not only reduce the risk of contracting HPV but also limit the likelihood of developing certain cancers and genital warts. This is why getting the jab is so important and should be as easily accessible as possible. While reflecting on my personal experience with Gardasil9 (one of the types of HPV vaccines), I aim to reach out to others who are in a similar boat as I am. Whose parents decided to opt them out of the HPV vaccine as a child, and now they’re left wondering what it is and how they can get it. Even if you have no clue what HPV is and how to protect yourself from contracting it, no worries! No judgement here. Taking control of your sexual health is a learning curve! But we can do it together, one jab at a time. 

Disclaimer: The terms “female” and “male” are used within a section of this blog to remain consistent with research language.

HPV in a Nutshell

If there is one thing that everyone can agree on, it is that sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are really not ideal. From herpes to chlamydia and everything in between, STIs are one of the few downsides to being sexually active. But it is important to understand the risk associated with certain STIs in order to take precautions and prevent infection. 

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is an example of an STI that has the potential to cause serious implications that can last a lifetime. Just to provide some quick facts, there are over 100 different types of HPV. Some types can cause genital warts, while others can cause different cancers such as cervical, penile, or anal cancer. HPV is a fairly common STI, with an estimated 70% of sexually active Canadians contracting it at some point in their life. Because HPV is easily contracted, it is important to focus on ways to either prevent infection or mitigate the risk entirely. If you’re interested in learning more about HPV, I encourage you to read this Marlow blog, written by my friend Miranda. 

Prevention

Condoms and more

What if I told you that condoms were your best friend? Would you believe me? I mean really, when you think about it, they go everywhere with you and they’re always there when you need them. Seriously though, do not underestimate the importance of condoms, or even dental dams for that matter. Both can be used to prevent many different types of STIs, including HPV. Since HPV can spread through vaginal, anal and oral contact with an infected person, using both dental dams and condoms can reduce your risk of contracting HPV. However, it is important to note that these preventative methods are not as effective against HPV when compared to other STIs such as chlamydia or HIV. This should not downplay the significance of practicing safe sex though, and if anything provides more of an incentive to get the HPV vaccine.

Pap tests

For those who have cervixes and are sexually active, having a Pap test done every 3 years is crucial. Depending on where you live, it is advised that a person gets their primary Pap test between the ages of 21 and 29 if you are sexually active. A Pap test is performed by taking a swab of cells from the cervix and seeing if there are any abnormalities present that could potentially develop into cervical cancer. Seeing as HPV can cause cervical cancer, getting your Pap test done every 3 years is a way of ensuring you are HPV free. It is important to speak with your healthcare provider to see if you are eligible for a Pap test. 

Vaccines

Out of all of the ways to prevent HPV infection, vaccines are one of, if not, the best options. Within Canada, there are three approved HPV vaccines. These are referred to as Gardasil, Cervarix and Gardasil9. While each vaccine is slightly different from the other, the fact still remains the same that vaccination against HPV only serves to enhance safe sex practices and decrease the presence of those pesky STIs. 

HPV Vaccines at a Brief Glance

Who knew that there were different HPV vaccines? I certainly didn’t before I wrote this blog. Without getting too technical, I’d like to just take a second to highlight some of the differences that I found between the vaccines. For the purpose of this blog, I will only be highlighting Gardasil and Gardasil9. And just to add too, I am by no means a health professional or medical expert. As always, it is best to speak with your doctor regarding the HPV vaccine.

Gardasil

In 2006, Gardasil was introduced and authorized for use in females between the ages of 9 and 26. The Gardasil vaccine targets 4 types of HPV, along with cervical, vulvar, vaginal and anal cancers as well as genital warts too. In 2010, Gardasil was also approved for use in males between the ages of 9 and 26. 

Gardasil9

Gardasil9 was introduced to Canada in 2016. This vaccine provides protection against 9 different types of HPV. It is approved for use in both males and females, and it protects against 2 different types of HPV that result in genital warts as well as 7 different types of HPV that result in cancer. 

As I mentioned before, between the two vaccines, Gardasil9 was the one that I was given. Drawing from both my research and personal experience, let’s now take a closer look at actually receiving the Gardasil9 vaccine. 

Getting the Jab –  Let’s Take a Closer Look

After making it this far into the blog and with all this talk about HPV, you’re hopefully thinking “thank goodness for those vaccines”!! Well, you know, I’m definitely thinking the same thing. Now, together, let’s pivot a little and take a closer look at how Gardasil9, and by extension HPV vaccines in general, are administered. 

Across Canada, HPV vaccines are generally administered to children free of charge. Depending on the province, a child could receive a vaccine as early as grade 4. If you go to the official website for Gardasil9 and select the province that you live in, you can determine your eligibility for receiving the vaccine. It is also a really cool resource for comparing different provincially funded vaccination programs with regards to the Gardasil9 vaccine. For example, in Ontario, children that are in grade 7 are eligible for Gardasil9, up until they graduate from grade 12. But in Saskatchewan, the HPV vaccine is free for those who didn’t get it in grade 6 and this is valid until you reach 27 years old. In my opinion, it’s fascinating that there are such transparent differences between provinces and their stance on HPV vaccines (i.e. Ontario versus Saskatchewan). Through these comparisons, it goes to show that certain provinces value accessibility to HPV vaccines more than others. 

Gardasil9 is administered through 3 separate injections, usually timed a certain number of months apart. The way it works is that once you schedule your 1st dose, then your 2nd dose will be approximately 2 months after, and finally with the 3rd happening 6 months after your 1st. There is a chance that the vaccine could be administered through 2 doses as opposed to 3, but this only applies to those between the ages of 9 and 14. 

Speaking of those aged 9 to 14, did I mention that the Gardasil9 vaccine is free to them? In fact, within Ontario, if a child did not receive the vaccine in grade 7 then it is free of charge until they graduate from grade 12! This is awesome, because it is ensuring accessibility at a young age. But remember when I mentioned at the beginning of this blog that I never got my vaccines until recently? Well, once I graduated from grade 12 in Ontario, I had to pay out of pocket if I wanted the Gardasil9 vaccine. And guess how much each dose cost? I bet you’re gonna be as shocked as I was when I googled it. 

Accessibility

Jumping right into it, let me tell you that my jaw hit the floor when I discovered how much Gardasil9 was going to cost me. Gardasil9 had a price tag of over $200 per shot. Yes, you read that correctly. Per shot. Meaning I was going to spend over $600 to get the HPV vaccine, just because my parents chose for me to not get the jab as a child. Talk about an accessibility issue for those who are only beginning their journey to taking control of their sexual health and wellbeing. While most private insurance companies cover a portion of the cost of Gardasil9, not all people 26 and under have insurance in the first place.

It is important to note that as of 2017, Gardasil9 became free for men under the age of 26 who identify as gay, bisexual, or transgendered. While this is really great, it is crucial to also include those who have cervixes under the same umbrella in order to break down all barriers to accessible health practices such as the HPV vaccine. In turn, this will lead to a healthy society that is practicing safe sex.  

Earlier last week, I had the pleasure of meeting with Gillian Cameron and Kirsten Krose. In late January 2022, Gillian took to social media to raise awareness about the cost of HPV vaccines. What kicked this off was the fact that Gillian had a friend reach out to her who was in a similar situation as me. Their parents had decided to opt them out of the vaccine and now, at a later age, their doctor was advising that they look into getting the shot. But, after doing some research about the vaccine, they found out that it would cost them upwards of $500. Gillian went on to make posts on her Instagram, Tiktok, and other platforms in an effort to stir up conversation surrounding this issue of inaccessibility with regards to affording Gardasil9. She started a petition on change.org titled “Make Gardasil vaccine affordable for all women + people with cervices”, which has garnered over 9,000 signatures of support. I encourage you to view and sign the petition, every signature counts. 

Now, looking towards the future, Gillian has teamed up with Kirsten Krose of SWON Public Affairs. Kirsten has been working in government and public affairs for over a decade and agreed to work alongside Gillian to make this issue surrounding the accessibility and affordability of the HPV vaccine an even bigger topic of conversation. Together they will be launching a campaign called “Make HPV Vaccine Free For Me” which aims to lobby the Ontario government to create an amendment to the current regulations around vaccinations and eligibility for the HPV vaccine. With regards to eligibility, their goal is to make it where if a person does not receive their vaccine as a child, then their eligibility does not expire after grade 12 but rather gets extended until the age of 26. Ideally, in a perfect world, the HPV vaccine would be free for anyone past the age of 26, but as of right now their aim is to set the age limit to match those who identify as gay, bisexual, or transgendered men. And it is also important to note that by providing free HPV vaccines for all people with cervixes too, it will not only act as a cost-saving mechanism but also it will ultimately save lives in the future. 

Let's Wrap It Up

To wrap this rather lengthy blog up, I want to thank you all for coming on this journey with me. I understand that vaccinations, and by extension HPV, is not the most glamorous topic. But who am I kidding, sexual health and wellbeing is not all sunshine and rainbows. It still does not change the fact that it is crucial to have these conversations and hopefully bring about change through campaigns like “Make HPV Vaccine Free for Me”. 

If you have had a similar experience with regards to obtaining an HPV vaccine (i.e. you did not get it when it was free to you and you’ve had to navigate getting it as an adult) then I encourage you to reach out to SWON Public Affairs and share your personal testimonial. Every voice and every experience matters, especially while campaigning for change. They can be reached by email at kirsten@swonpublicaffairs.com and to ensure they receive it, the subject line needs to be “Make HPV Vaccine Free for Me Testimonial”. 

I just wanted to take a moment to say thank you to both Gillian and Kirsten for bringing this issue of affordability to light and for launching a campaign that only aims to make the world a better, more equal place. As someone who is directly affected by the price of Gardasil9, it is nice to know that I’m not the only one questioning why this issue has never really been addressed- until now of course. For a vaccine that is as important as the HPV vaccine, I should not have to face a financial barrier while only trying to take control of my sexual health. And you shouldn’t either. So together, with free HPV vaccines, we can have safer sex, one jab at a time. 

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