Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most prevalent sexually transmitted infection in Canada and around the world. It’s estimated that over 80 percent of sexually active adults will be exposed to this cancer-causing virus in their lifetimes.

Doctors, activists, and policy-makers are hoping to raise HPV’s profile in the public consciousness with the announcement of a national HPV Prevention Week to take place this October and every year to follow, making Canada the first country in the world to embrace such a campaign.

A golden moment

Now may be the perfect time for this effort. In recent decades, massive progress has been made in preventing and treating HPV, and experts believe we are at a turning point if the right momentum can be achieved and maintained. “We’re at a completely pivotal time in Canada right now, both in respect to our understanding of HPV-related disease and also our opportunity to make a difference,” says Dr. Jennifer Blake, CEO of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada. “There’s been an explosion in our understanding and knowledge of HPV and the role it plays in cancer.”

Cervical cancer, one of the most common cancers in women worldwide, is caused almost exclusively by HPV infection. Though screening has resulted in a considerable drop in cervical cancer rates since 1992, it remains a serious concern. “We’re still losing approximately one woman a day to cervical cancer,” says Dr. Vivien Brown, Past President of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada. “And while mortality increases with age, the disease is most prevalent in women in their 30s and 40s.”

Not just a women’s disease

One of the major developments in our understanding of HPV, however, has been the realization that it doesn’t begin and end with cervical cancer. “We’re realizing that this is not just a women’s disease,” says Dr. Nancy Durand of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. “It’s not just a disease of the cervix. It can also result in vaginal cancer and exterior vulvar skin cancer, as well as anal cancer and oropharyngeal (throat) cancer in both men and women. And these cancers are increasing dramatically in Canada and around the world, while rates of cervical cancer are dropping.”

The goal of the national HPV Prevention Week is to encourage conversation and education about this virus and how it can be prevented, particularly through vaccination not only of children but also of adults. “The current, most up-to-date vaccine protects against nine types of HPV, and the chance that you have been exposed to all types is extremely low,” says Dr. Durand. “So you benefit from being protected against the types you have not already been exposed to, and we’re starting to see that you may also benefit from protection against the types you have been exposed to.”

A cancer we can beat

The Federation of Medical Women of Canada has played a major role in spearheading the HPV Prevention Week initiative, and believes strongly in its potential for positive impact. “This is all about getting Canadians talking, increasing engagement and knowledge, and really understanding that we have the opportunity not just to prevent an infection but to prevent cancer,” says Dr. Brown. “We want parents to understand this so that they’ll sign that release form and say, ‘Yes, I want my child to be immunized. I want to protect them against cancer.’”

The potential payoff from increased awareness is profound. Through a combination of vaccination, safer sex, regular screenings, and other initiatives, this cancer-causing disease can be very thoroughly combated. “This is a cancer that’s caused by a viral infection, so we have the potential to actually eradicate this cancer in the same way we eradicated polio and smallpox,” says Dr. Blake. “I truly believe we have the opportunity to end this cancer in our lifetimes by treating it as an infectious disease.”

HPV Prevention Week 2017 will run from October 1 through October 7.