Gay health advocates are applauding BC’s new program to vaccinate all Grade 6 students against a common sexually transmitted infection (STI). But some worry the expanded protection still doesn’t go far enough.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is an STI that is linked to genital warts as well as oral, cervical, penile, and anal cancers. The latest Gardasil vaccine offers protection from the four most common strains of HPV infection.
Until 2015, only girls got vaccinated for free against HPV in Grade 6. But advocates protested that gay boys and men are also at high risk for HPV — more than 60 percent of men who have sex with men carry the virus.
Two years ago, the BC government expanded the free Gardasil vaccine program to include boys in Grade 6 too, but in order to qualify for the vaccine, the boys had to request it, potentially forcing them to come out to their teachers.
BC also started offering the Gardasil vaccine free to men who have sex with men in 2015, but only if they’re less than 27 years old.
Now, a policy change in January 2017 meant this September’s round of school vaccines was given to all Grade 6 students, no questions asked.
But the 27-year-old cut-off remains in place for gay men.
So, is this progress?
Yes, says Joshua Edward from Vancouver’s Health Initiative for Men (HIM), but there is still work to be done.
There’s still a sizeable portion of the gay population that’s not receiving subsidized protection from HPV, he says.
According to HIM’s #GetGarded campaign, it’s estimated that among cancers affecting men, HPV is linked to 80–90 percent of anal cancers, 40–50 percent of penile cancers, 35 percent of throat cancers, and 25 percent of mouth cancers.
Gay and bisexual men are about 20 times more likely to develop anal cancer than the general population, the campaign says.
“So we would advocate for the province extending the vaccination to all gay guys,” Edward says.
HealthLinkBC also recommends the vaccine for men who have sex with men over the age of 26.
But if gay men over 26 want to get protected in BC, they have to pay for the shots themselves, or get it covered through private insurance.
“Gardasil runs somewhere around $200 a shot and for the three series of vaccinations — that’s not an insignificant cost,” Edward says. “Certainly some guys will just choose not to get it if they have to pay out of pocket.”
“If we look at some of the long-term potential cost savings, in terms of avoided cancers and that kind of thing, it actually might offer pretty significant cost savings to the province if they did cover it,” he adds.
For now, Edward urges all gay men under the age of 27 to get the free vaccine.
Spencer Chandra Herbert, the NDP MLA for Vancouver’s West End, says making the Gardasil vaccine free for all Grade 6 students was long overdue.
“A boy who could be as young as nine shouldn’t have to out themselves and say, ‘Hey, I might be gay or bi’ in order to get the immunization,” he says.
With the election of a new NDP government this summer, Chandra Herbert says the province is examining ways to expand immunization coverage even further and is looking for feedback on the program.
Though he says he hasn’t heard from constituents about the age 27 cut-off, he’s open to listening to anyone with concerns.
“I’d be interested in feedback,” he says. “I’m certainly all ears.”
BC joins Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador in offering the vaccine for free to all children, up to age 26. Chandra Herbert says the program expansion in BC was the result of advocacy from various groups.
“It came about because of ongoing lobbying efforts — advocacy efforts — both from MLAs but [also] from doctors, from parents, from advocacy organizations that work in the health field,” he notes.