09/17/2012 06:37 EDT | Updated 11/17/2012 05:12 EST

Toronto Public Health expands free HPV vaccine program for teen girls

TORONTO - Toronto Public Health is expanding its Human Papillomavirus vaccine program to give teenage girls who missed their HPV vaccinations in Grade 8 a chance to get the shots for free at clinics throughout the city.

The vaccine protects against certain strains of HPV, which is the primary cause of genital warts and the agent behind about 70 per cent of cervical cancers.

The expansion to the vaccine program began at a temporary clinic at the Scarborough Civic Centre in the city's east end on Monday, where girls aged 13 to 19 could receive inoculations.

Lisa Li, 17, was one of the dozens of girls at the clinic. She said most of the teens she knows were inoculated when they were in Grade 8.

"You could choose whether or not to get it and I guess my dad chose for me not to get it at that time," she said.

Li recently received a letter in the mail informing her that she was due for her vaccination. She will have to return to a clinic within the next six months to get the second and third shots that make up the full vaccine.

Vinita Dubey, Toronto Public Health's associate medical officer of health, said the city had sent out 19,000 letters to girls due for vaccinations, while an additional 16,000 letters still need to be mailed out

The outreach effort was developed in June when the Ontario government announced more funding in response to health organizations advocating free vaccination for girls who missed their shots in Grade 8 after the program's 2007 launch.

According to Toronto Public Health, about 14,000 girls are eligible for the vaccine each year, and about 60 per cent of them get vaccinated.

More than 100,000 shots have been given in Toronto since the program's inception.

Isha Bhanot, 13, came to get the last of her three doses of the vaccine at the temporary clinic set up on Monday, after getting the first two while she was in Grade 8 earlier this year.

"I didn't get the injection because I missed school when they were giving it," she said.

The vaccine is recommended by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization in Canada to all females aged nine to 26, and is even considered beneficial to those up to the age of 45.

It is also suggested for males because it helps prevent genital warts and certain genital cancers.

However, the city program provides the vaccine for free only to girls born between 1993 and 1998.

Women over the age of 19 and any males who may want to get vaccinated must pay $450 for the three shots.

Nonetheless, Dubey hopes to see a large turnout with the program's latest expansion.

"We hope that as the word gets out and as people realize that it's a safe vaccine and important to prevent cervical cancer — and it would otherwise be expensive if they had to buy it on their own — that they'll come to our clinics and get it," she said.

The vaccine will be available at various community clinics in Toronto during specific days throughout fall, as well as in January 2013.