Not enough students are getting the HPV vaccine.

That’s the word from the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit. According to the health unit’s numbers, just over 68 per cent of area students overall are taking advantage of the HPV vaccine. The rate is even lower when talking specifically about Muskoka.

“HPV is responsible for almost all cervical cancer cases, as well as other cancers including mouth, throat, and anal cancers, but our local immunization rates against the virus are far from ideal,” said Dr. Colin Lee, Associate Medical Officer of Health for the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU). “We need to change that. This is an excellent vaccine that helps prevent cancers and saves lives.”

Students in Grade 7 can get the HPV vaccine for free from the SMDHU as part of a provincial, school-based program. The health unit says it’s estimated that 75 per cent of Canadians will be infected by HPV at least once in their lifetime, making it one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the country. The infection is then often spread unknowingly because most sexually active people who have HPV don’t know that they have it.

The SMDHU says the best time and way to prevent HPV infection is to receive the vaccine in Grade 7.

“This vaccine is the easiest, most effective way to protect yourself from an HPV infection,” says Dr. Laura White, gynecologic oncologist, Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH). “Almost everyone will come into contact with and acquire an HPV infection at some point in their life. It’s important that parents support vaccination in Grade 7 since the vaccine works best before individuals become sexually active. Numerous studies have shown that the benefits of this vaccine significantly outweigh the risks. When 99 per cent of cervical cancer is caused by HPV, the vaccine – combined with regular pap smears – is a simple way we can eradicate this type of cancer.”

On top of causing a variety of cancers, HPV also causes genital warts. Last school year more than 12 per cent of visits to SMDHU sexual health clinics were for warts caused by HPV.

Students who have missed the Grade 7 HPV vaccination or still need their second dose, have until the till the end of high school to complete it. For more information about catching up on the HPV vaccine or about HPV, check the health unit’s website or call Health Connection weekdays 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. at 705-721-7520 or toll free at 1-877-721-7520.