A B.C. school board is asking the province to expand its publicly funded human papillomavirus vaccination program, saying the current criteria that exclude some school-age boys are inequitable.
The New Westminster School Board sent a letter to Health Minister Adrian Dix, Education Minister Rob Fleming and Parliamentary Secretary for Gender Equity Mitzi Dean this month after trustee Danielle Connelly learned of the unequal access through her own sons.
“My youngest, who was born in 2006, got [immunized] when he was in Grade 6, so that sort of put it on our radar,” said Ms. Connelly, who put forward the motion in September. ”When we went to ask about getting our older son done, we found out that he would have to pay.”
The HPV9 vaccine is publicly funded for all children in Grade 6 in British Columbia. Girls who did not get it at this time are still eligible as long as they start their vaccine series before their 19th birthday and complete it before they turn 26.
However, boys who missed their Grade 6 immunization are eligible to get it free only if they were born in 2006 or later, or meet one of several criteria, including being HIV-positive, transgender, street-involved, sexually active with other men or are questioning their sexual orientation.
Otherwise, the HPV9 vaccine costs about $180 for each dose, and two to three are required, depending on age.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world and causes nearly all cervical cancers. It is also linked to 80 to 90 per cent of anal cancers; 40 per cent of vaginal and vulvar cancers; 40 to 50 per cent of penile cancers; and 25 to 35 per cent of mouth and throat cancers, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. One in three HPV-related cancers occurs in males.
About 600 British Columbians were diagnosed with an HPV-related cancer in 2012, according to the B.C. Cancer Agency.
Every province offers the HPV vaccine free of charge to school-age boys and girls, but catch-up programs vary. In Alberta, for example, anyone who missed the Grade 6 immunization is still eligible for a free HPV9 vaccine until the end of Grade 12. In Saskatchewan, only girls born after Jan. 1, 1996, and boys born after Jan. 1, 2006, are eligible, up to their 27th birthdays. There are exceptions for those considered to be at higher risk.
The Ministry of Health confirmed receipt of the letter but has yet to issue a response. A statement attributed to issues manager and ministry spokeswoman Meribeth Burton said eligibility and public availability depend on a number of factors, including local epidemiology, efficacy, burden of illness and cost effectiveness.
The vaccine was only available free to Grade 6 girls in B.C. until 13-year-old twin boys from New Westminster, Nelson and Elliot Roy, brought the matter to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal in 2015. The government settled with the Roys and, in 2017, expanded the program to include Grade 6 boys.
However, Nelson and Elliot were still ineligible for the free vaccine because of the age cutoff.
In an interview this week the boys’ father, Michel Roy, said that “we tried very hard to push the ministry, in the whole human rights process, to not be so silly,” he said. “But at the time, it didn’t seem there was any political appetite to expand the vaccine beyond what they had announced.”
The settlement included a cash payment that Mr. Roy said the ministry suggested could be used to fund the boys’ immunizations out of pocket. But the family refused on principle and donated the money to the Canadian Cancer Society and the Community Legal Assistance Society that represented them.
Instead, Mr. Roy said he would use a loophole in the ministry’s criteria for eligibility – that his sons were questioning their sexuality – in order to get them immunized.
Mr. Roy said it makes no sense “that you should have to make use of this loophole when young men who are a few years younger don’t have to, and girls who are the same age as you don’t have to make use of any loophole at all.”