Update: The Ontario government announced on April 21, 2016 that its publicly-funded HPV vaccination program will be expanded to include boys this coming school year.
Five or six years ago, when my son was about six, I bought him a book about sex. Illustrated with goofy cartoons, it was a gentle introduction to anatomy and the process of making babies. I tried to read it to him several times, but we never got past the first pages, which featured a drawing of a little girl and a little boy getting into a tub, with arrows indicating their body parts, like “elbow,” “ear,” “nipple,” “penis” and “toe.” Every time I got to the word “anus,” my kid would plug his ears, giggle uncontrollably and shriek “You said a dirty word, mommy!” Lesson over.
I’ve been more successful lately, now that my son is older, though he’s still often mortified. The birds and bees basics have been covered and whenever I have an opening — a sexually charged song comes on the radio, there’s a kissing scene in a movie, I get wind of a crush on a classmate — I try to talk with him about the mechanics of sex and love, as well as the pleasures and responsibilities.
These conversations can be awkward and embarrassing (sometimes even I want to plug my ears and giggle uncontrollably) but they’re important and we’re due for another one soon. My wife and I have decided to have our son vaccinated for HPV — and if you have a son, you should vaccinate him, too.
The human papillomavirus is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in Canada, so prevalent that three-quarters of us will have at least one HPV infection in our lifetimes. The virus has serious consequences: it can lead to cervical cancer (an estimated 1,500 Canadian women are diagnosed each year, and 580 die from it annually), as well as mouth and throat cancers, and anal cancer, the rates of the latter have doubled here in the last 25 years.
Here’s the good news: The vaccine for HPV is safe and highly effective in preventing the spread of the virus, particularly when it’s given to children and teens prior to them becoming sexually active.
So far, girls have been the ones bearing this public health responsibility because the vaccine is available free to girls in Grades 4 to 8, through publicly funded programs nationwide. But a report released this week by researchers at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto makes the case that we should be including boys in all publicly funded programs, too. (Only Alberta and PEI provide it for free to boys, with Nova Scotia planning to do so soon.) HPV-related throat cancer affect three times as many men as women and its prevalence is anticipated to surpass that of cervical cancer within 10 years. Vaccinating boys could save our healthcare system between $8 million and $28 million a year.
If you already believe in the importance of vaccinations for other diseases, like measles or polio, then vaccinating your child against HPV is a no-brainer. (And if you are anti-vax, I will simply note that the medical and scientific evidence supporting vaccination programs is overwhelming.)
The HPV vaccine for girls has caused some pearl-clutching over concerns that it might lead to promiscuity — the logic (if you can call it that) being that protection from HPV will somehow drive girls to go wild. Two large-scale studies, however, have revealed no correlation at all between the HPV vaccine and sexual behaviour. The shots don’t make teens have more sex than they already do, but those shots will help protect teens from HPV when and if they do have it.
Which isn’t to say that the issue of sex as it relates to the vaccine is irrelevant. The HPV vaccine, which is typically given around puberty, offers an opportunity to actually talk to kids about the shot and why they are getting it.
In other words, getting the shots also means teaching kids about the importance of looking after their own health and the health of their future partners. For boys, who are far less likely than girls to seek medical advice around sex and far less likely to be given sexual health information from doctors when they do see them, this is potentially life-saving. It’s also part of teaching young men about being compassionate and responsible partners.
Due to biology and social double standards, young women face most of the negative consequence of sex — from unwanted pregnancies, to assault, to slut shaming. Vaccinating boys against HPV gives them a way to step up. The shots don’t just protect them, they also increase overall immunity. And something that’s not talked about much in this debate, but is absolutely vital, is the fact that the vaccine is of particular importance for gay and bisexual young men, who will not receive the herd immunity benefits of girls’ vaccination programs.
I’m not saying these conversations are easy, but we have to have them. It’s time to unplug our ears and stop giggling. And just like the shots, I promise it won’t hurt at all.
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