Following the news that England will now vaccinate men who have sex with men against the human papilloma virus, Dr Joanna Longstaffe, clinical director of the Independent General Practice, explains why this is still not good enough and the vaccination programme needs to be gender-neutral and include adolescent boys as well.
Dr Longstaffe says: “Starting in April 2018, men under 45 who have sex with men will be offered the HPV vaccination in England, bringing the country in line with Wales which has been offering the vaccination since last April.
“Currently in England girls aged between 11 and 13 are offered the Gardasil vaccine: an injection that helps to prevent all of the associated cancers to HPV, including cervical cancer. The virus causes over 60,000 cases of anogenital warts and cervical, anal, penile, vulval, vaginal, head and neck and oral cancers in the UK each year – and the numbers are currently rising. While the vaccination programme for girls provides indirect protection to sexual partners, in the case of men who have sex with men, they do not receive herd protection so the roll-out of the new programme across the whole of the UK is a major step forward.
The current protection for 13 year old boys assumes they will only ever have a relationship with a girl and that she will have been vaccinated.
“HPV is a group of viruses spread through direct skin-to-skin contact, usually during intimate sexual activity, which infects the moist mucous membranes in the body. It is the leading cause of cervical cancer (responsible for 96% of cases), anal cancer (93%), mouth cancer (63%), vaginal cancer (64%) and vulval cancer (51%); as well as causing 36% of all penile cancer cases. Worldwide, HPV accounts for 5% of all cancers – why would you not vaccinate against that if it was possible?
“The virus is common in both men and women with one in three individuals in the UK becoming infected at some point, but, as there are no symptoms, in many cases the person won’t know they have it.
“In Australia and the USA boys are routinely vaccinated against HPV at the same age as girls, which is something I strongly support. Giving both sexes two doses of the vaccine aged 12-13 will significantly reduce the incidence of HPV related cancers and genital warts.
“I honestly think that including boys in the vaccination programme is a no-brainer and I have already paid privately for my sons to be vaccinated. Of course, we have to consider cost-effective population-based solutions, but updating the current system will save countless lives and could see us significantly eradicate these devastating cancers, which are of the increase and tend to affect younger people.”