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This fall, Ontario will become the latest province to expand its publicly funded human papillomavirus vaccination program to boys, Health Minister Eric Hoskins announced Thursday at Toronto General Hospital.

"We all want our children, regardless of gender, to grow up happy and healthy," he said. "We need to do whatever we can to protect young people from this cancer-causing virus."

Dr. Hoskins said the province is also moving the program up a year, meaning all Ontario students will ‎now be offered the vaccine in Gr. 7 instead of Gr. 8. The change is being done, in part, to save money by bundling the HPV vaccine with other needles given to students in that school year.

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The total cost of the program will be about $15-million once boys are added, Dr. Hoskins said.

The announcement comes after growing public pressure from groups like the Canadian Cancer Society, the Canadian Medical Association, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization and the Society for Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada to extend coverage to boys. Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a sexually transmitted infection that affects up to 75 per cent of sexually active people. The vaccine protects against common forms of the virus that can lead to cancer. Two forms of the virus, HPV-16 and HPV-18, are responsible for 70 per cent of all cervical cancers, but are also linked to penile, anal, vaginal, oral and throat cancers.

"Boys deserve the same protection as the girls are getting," said Rowena Pinto, vice-president of public affairs and strategic initiatives with the Canadian Cancer Society's Ontario division. She said Ontario's decision is right right move.

All Canadian provinces offer the HPV vaccine free to girls, typically in elementary school before they become sexually active. Alberta and Prince Edward Island offer the vaccine free to boys, while Manitoba plans to start a free vaccination program for boys this September. British Columbia offers the HPV vaccine to boys or men who self-identify as those who will have sex with men or live on the street.

Provinces are increasingly coming under fire from health experts who say HPV should not be viewed through a gendered lens, as the virus affects men and women.

In a 2015 report by the Cancer Advocacy Coalition of Canada, Ottawa pharmacist Jaime McDonald took aim at the fact a debate about sexuality has been driving policy decisions about HPV.

"Public funding for vaccination against a sexually transmitted infection is subject to considerable public debate and opinion, much like other 'lifestyle' illnesses such as smoking and drug abuse," she wrote.

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Studies have also shown that HPV-related throat cancer is on the rise, underscoring the need for universal vaccination, experts say.

Cost has been one of the primary reasons HPV has, until recently, only been offered to girls in most provinces. But a study published by Toronto researchers last year turned that notion on its head, finding that universal coverage could actually save the health-care system between $8- and $28-million over the course of its lifetime.

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