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Advocates push vaccines for boys amid rise in HPV-caused cancers

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Mouth and throat cancers caused by the human papillomavirus are on the rise in Canada, underscoring an urgent need for all provinces to publicly fund vaccine programs for boys, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.

On Wednesday, the society released its annual cancer statistics report, which found that over the past 20 years, HPV-related mouth and throat cancers rose by 56 per cent among men and 17 per cent among women.

HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that can lead to the development of cervical, mouth, throat, vaginal, penile and other types of cancer. There are three types of HPV vaccines that help prevent infection with the viruses most commonly linked to cancer.

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According to the society, the vaccines are not currently approved to prevent mouth and throat cancer, but evidence shows HPV 16 is present in the vast majority of those cancer cases and that vaccination can effectively prevent most infections.

Related: Why this doctor says leaving boys out of HPV vaccination program doesn't make sense

Related: Is newer better when it comes to cervical cancer screening programs?

Read more: Vaccinating boys against HPV could cut health-care costs, study suggests

All Canadian provinces currently have public programs to vaccinate girls against HPV. But several parts of Canada still don't offer publicly funded HPV vaccines for boys. British Columbia, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador and all three territories still do not have school-based programs for boys. Ontario's program began this past September.

"I think there continues to be a lot of misconceptions about HPV and about HPV vaccinations," said Leah Smith, an epidemiologist with the Canadian Cancer Society.

Many people still believe the virus is only linked to cervical cancer. But according to statistics from 2012, the proportion of new HPV-related cervical cancer cases and mouth and throat cancer cases were about the same. If the trends continue, new cases of HPV-related mouth and throat cancer in men will soon surpass cervical cancer cases in women, according to the society.

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In total, 3,760 Canadians were diagnosed with a HPV-related cancer in 2012 and that number is expected to grow to 4,400 this year, the society said. One in three cases of HPV cancer is diagnosed in men.

In fact, the society says men are four times more likely to get HPV-related mouth or throat cancer than women, perhaps because infections are more common in men and take longer to clear.

Terry Patterson is one of the men affected by HPV-related cancer of the throat. He was diagnosed in 2013 after noticing his necktie didn't look right and he found bumps on his throat. He endured a painful biopsy, surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, which amounted to the most difficult six months of his life.

Now, Mr. Patterson, a 52-year-old father who lives in Waterloo, Ont., wants everyone to know about the vaccine that could help prevent them from ever having to go through a similar situation. His daughter was in the first year of girls to receive a publicly funded HPV vaccine about a decade ago. At the time, Mr. Patterson recalls his wife wondering why the same vaccine wasn't being made available to boys, considering the virus is sexually transmitted. They paid out of pocket to ensure two of their sons would be vaccinated.

"If we can eradicate at least one or two particular cancers … then why wouldn't you do that?" he said.

The report estimates that across Canada, about 202,400 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed this year, excluding non-melanoma skin cancers. About 78,800 people will die from the disease. More than half of newly diagnosed cases will be prostate, breast, lung and colorectal cancers.

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Among men, prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed form of the disease, representing 21 per cent of new cases. The society estimates that 21,600 men will be diagnosed this year and that 4,000 will die from the disease. The incidence and death rates tied to prostate cancer are on the decline.

Among women, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed, representing 26 per cent of new cancer cases. In 2016, the society says 25,700 women will be diagnosed with the disease and about 4,900 will die from it. The death rate linked to breast cancer has steadily declined in recent decades as a result of screening and improved treatment options.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer mortality among both men and women, leading to more deaths than breast, prostate and colorectal cancer combined. Of the 28,400 Canadians expected to be diagnosed this year, an estimated 20,800 will die from the disease.

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More


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