One small step closer to a cure

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Promiscuous students rejoice! Thanks to a revolutionary new vaccine, genital warts may become a thing of the past. And although preventing students from awakening to unsightly--and unwelcome--lesions on their nether regions after a night at the Den is no small miracle, the vaccine has also been proven effective in preventing cervical cancer.

Gardasil, administered in three doses over a six-month period, prevents the sexually-transmitted human papilloma virus 6, 11, 16 and 18. The latter two strains are responsible for 70 per cent of all cervical cancers.

Last week, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommended all females aged nine to 26 should receive the vaccination. However, Alberta Health is awaiting more information before deciding whether to fund a school-based vaccination program similar to those already in place for Hepatitis B and Meningitis. At approximately $400 per person for the three necessary doses, it's a sizeable sum for the provincial government to dole out. While exact figures for Canada are not yet known, an Australian program aimed at 12- and 13-year-old girls was accompanied by a $430 million price tag.

While the figure may seem alarming, a vaccination program would potentially prevent approximately 400 deaths due to cervical cancer in Canada per year. Some may still argue, albeit callously, that 400 lives is too small a segment of the Canadian population to throw such a hefty sum of money at. However, preventive measures would not come without financial benefit. Afflictions attributed to HPV are estimated to cost the Canadian health care system over $300 million per year. With a 99 per cent rate of effectiveness against HPV, Gardasil could potentially save the government a decent chunk of change. Also, as the vaccine evolves further, it is likely production costs will decline.

Presently, the vaccine is available from family physicians, but is not yet covered by Alberta Health Care. Neglecting to provide it free of charge to those without the financial means to do so themselves--sadly, often sex-trade workers at highest risk--will only cost the provincial government in the future, as treatment for HPV and cervical cancer is covered.

Financial debate aside, further controversy has brewed south of the border with parents concerned that if their daughters are subject to school-based vaccinations against the STD, they may view it as a free pass to unprotected pleasure and that money should instead be funneled into programs teaching their children about the dangers of sex. While education is an important aspect of any public health initiative, education doesn't prevent cancer. Gardasil does. Any parent open with their daughter regarding sexual education also shouldn't have to worry that a vaccine protecting them from an STD will turn their child into Paris Hilton. Discussion regarding safe sex can prevent that. Here, it becomes merely an issue of semantics--call it a cancer vaccine, and it's not likely to stir up controversy; call it an STD vaccine, however, and watch the proverbial fur fly.

In Canada, we are fortunate enough to boast a universal health care system in which ability to pay does not equal one's ability to receive treatment. While the government dithers on whether to fund the cancer-preventing vaccine or not, lives hang in the balance. Any step towards cancer prevention is a necessary one. Any hindrance--be it a cost or moral issue--should be put aside in favour of a healthy population.