Lawrie McFarlane: Study warns of spread of cancer virus

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A new study by the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics should concern every parent with teenage children. The authors found that nearly half of all American males age 18 to 59 were infected with human papillomavirus. Forty per cent of females in the same age group had the virus.


Worse still, half of both sexes were infected with high-risk strains that cause about 31,000 cases of cancer each year in the U.S. (Roughly 40 strains of the virus have so far been identified.)


These are shocking results, all the more so because NCHS studies are pretty much the gold standard.


It had been thought originally that young women were most at risk. That is disproved by these findings.


And the causal relationship between high-risk strains of HPV and certain cancers — in particular cervical, throat and mouth cancers — is clearly revealed.


The virus is transmitted primarily by sexual contact (though there have been instances of pregnant women passing on the virus to their unborn child). The less dangerous strains are usually cleared by the body’s immune system within 12 to 18 months. But the high-risk varieties can persist much longer, in some cases giving rise to cancer.


There is no viable treatment for HPV, but — good news at last — vaccination is highly effective. There is, though, a catch.


Vaccination doesn’t work if the individual has already been infected. This means, in practice, that it must be conducted at age 11 or later, but before any sexual contact begins.


B.C. provides free vaccination for girls in Grade 6 or older. Starting in September, boys of the same age group will also be offered HPV shots.


This is at once a blessing, and for many parents, a dilemma. Giving 15-year-olds a vaccine intended to protect them against a sexually transmitted disease can feel like robbing them of their childhood.


Some parents might even fear they are encouraging sexual behaviour if they have their kids vaccinated. Better to wait until later.


But later, unfortunately, might be too late. Youngsters these days are already sexualized by social-media trolls and Internet pornography that would have horrified earlier generations. No child is safe from this onslaught.


And look once again at the numbers. If four out of 10 women in the U.S., and nearly half of the men, are infected, it’s a safe bet the same is true in Canada.


We’re not talking about protecting our kids against a remote possibility. The risk factor for HPV far exceeds anything we associate with other preventable diseases, such as measles or mumps.


Of course, that raises another issue — the growing unwillingness of some parents to have their children inoculated against anything.


Some have been misled by claims that vaccines cause autism. This is a thoroughly false allegation for which the physician responsible had his licence removed.


Yet the lie lives on. You need to vaccinate at least 90 per cent of a given population to suppress infectious disorders. Thanks in part to clueless “anti-vaxxers,” we’re no longer meeting that target.


Hence the current flare-up of measles in Europe, which has made thousands ill and killed 17. Hence also the recent outbreaks of mumps, measles and whooping cough in the U.S.


The hard facts are these: Without vaccination, a good chunk of our children will contract HPV at some point in their lives. And using those American statistics as a baseline, 3,000 Canadians will die each year of cancers directly related to the virus. That’s close to the annual number of prostate or breast-cancer deaths.


For parents agonizing over vaccinating their children against HPV, these figures speak for themselves.


jalmcfarlane@shaw.ca

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