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It can prevent cervical cancer. So why aren’t more women getting the HPV vaccine for free?

Gillian Cameron of London, Ont., is calling on the province to provide better access for women, after she learned a doctor-recommended vaccine aimed at preventing cervical and other cancers would cost her $600 for the full three-dose schedule.

Ontario’s program for the vaccine protecting against human papillomavirus (HPV) is for boys and girls beginning in Grade 7, when it’s suggested they get two shots within six months.

But the window to get the final shot closes at the end of a student’s last year of high school, so anyone who’s missed it would have to pay for it.

“I was pretty outraged when I heard that,” said Cameron, a Fanshawe College student studying cybersecurity. “It’s just completely ridiculous to expect people in their mid- to young 20s to be spending $600 willy-nilly on a vaccine.”

Cameron is lobbying the Ontario government to “make this affordable for all women and people that don’t identify as women but have a cervix.”

CBC News has reached out to Ontario’s Ministry of Health and so far has not received a response.

Vaccines aren’t cheap but neither is treating cancer

HPV is sexually transmitted, and infections are common and usually not a big deal. But in some cases, those infections can cause cervical cancer, as well as other genital cancers in both men and women. HPV-related throat cancers can also occur.

As people age, the vaccine used in Canada, Gardasil 9, becomes less effective and requires a third dose for older students and other people who begin their vaccine schedule in their 20s. For the best protection, the Ontario government recommends getting the vaccine before becoming sexually active.

Dr. David Palma, a radiation oncologist at the London Health Sciences Centre in Ontario, says he strongly supports anyone wanting the vaccine against HPV. (Submitted by David Palma)

“As people get older the benefit does come down, but there is still a benefit,” said Dr. David Palma, radiation oncologist at London Health Sciences Centre in Ontario. 

“I’m strongly supportive of anybody who wants the vaccine, who is eligible to get the vaccine to get it, because it will reduce their chances of some of these cancers, some of which are quite terrible.”

It’s just completely ridiculous to expect people in their mid- to young 20s to be spending $600 willy-nilly on a vaccine.– Gillian Cameron

And like Cameron, Palma believes the Ontario government should be covering the costs of the vaccine for more people.

“This is a false savings by the government,” he said. “They feel like they’re saving a bit of money on some of these vaccines, which are not cheap.

“But when you look at the downstream costs of all the things that can result from the precancerous spots that have to be dealt with … when you add up all of these costs, and the impact to people’s lives, I don’t think there’s any cost savings at all,” said Palma.

Apiramy Jeyapalan, a policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society — which is also calling for HPV vaccines to be available and affordable to all Canadians — stressed that virtually all cervical cancers are due to HPV, and can be prevented through vaccination.

The Canadian Population Attributable Risk of Cancer (ComPARe) study found about 1,300 cervical cancer cases in Canada could have been prevented in 2015.

Men and boys may also be affected, Jeyapalan noted, since HPV-related cancers can also include anal and penile cancer.

Some youth were opted out of the HPV program

A few weeks ago, Cameron asked her mom if she remembered if she’d had the vaccine as a child, but her mom said she opted her daughter out of the program because at the time, it was a new vaccine and even doctors were recommending holding off on a first dose.

A 13-year-old girl gets the vaccine to prevent HPV infections that can lead to certain forms of cancer. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

“I’ve actually gotten a ton of messages from girls my age that were also opted out of this by their parents,” said Cameron. “So there is a whole slew of us that just never got this in public school.

“When this is being offered to people, it’s being offered when you’re 11 years old, so it’s your parents making the decision,” said Cameron.

Since the clock runs out on a free HPV vaccine in Ontario by the end of Grade 12 when most young women are still in the care of their parents, they aren’t yet making decisions for themselves, she said.

“You can end up developing vaginal or cervical cancer,” said Cameron. “It can lead to complications with pregnancy, fertility. It just really adversely affects women. And so the fact that this is not offered to us for free is just insane to me.”

Five years ago, Ontario began providing the vaccine to men 26 and under who have sex with other men, as well as to trans individuals. Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Yukon all currently make the HPV vaccine free to anyone 26 and under.

London Morning6:47Why doesn’t the Ontario government cover the HPV vaccine for women in their early 20s?

Fanshawe college student Gillian Gameron is lobbying the Ontario government to cover the HPV vaccine for more women. She tells London Morning’s Rebecca Zandbergen the vaccine is too expensive for her to afford. 6:47

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