Pictured: Boys in New South Wales, Australia were offered the HPV vaccine (credit: The Daily Telegraph, Australia)
Recently in the media, accusations have been brought to light claiming that the government are ‘homophobic’ for not immunising men against HPV. Since 2008 girls aged 11-14 have been given the jab on the NHS, whereas boys and men, regardless of how likely they are to contract the virus, have been ignored.
HPV, or the Human Papilloma Virus, is a sexually transmitted infection known to lie in wait and show no signs or symptoms until it emerges, causing warts or even cancer. Even the use of condoms doesn’t provide adequate protection as it is spread by skin-to-skin contact; new research as of November 2014 has even shown that HPV could be spread through kissing.
There is no cure once it is contracted, and after weeks, months or even years, the virus can cause cells in the body to mutate, forming cancerous tumours in the mouth, genitals or anus. HPV is a major cause of cervical cancer, hence why the government chose to immunise girls rather than boys, and the treatment protects women as well as the men who have sex with them. The idea behind only vaccinating teenage girls was that it would be cost effective, as young girls are less likely to have had any contact with the virus.
Scientists, campaigners and media personalities alike have recognised the discrimination behind this, as men who wish to be immunised must pay for private treatment. With the policy of only immunising girls, prevention of the spread of the virus relies on a society where only heterosexual relationships exist. Dr Christian Jessen, of ‘Embarrassing Bodies’ fame, notes that “to only vaccinate 50 per cent of the population doesn’t make sense” as “you need to vaccinate enough of the population to shut down an infection”.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation have advised the government to provide gender-neutral immunisation. Not only would it help prevent the spread of HPV, but it would also be economically beneficial, saving the government millions of pounds that would otherwise be spent on treating the cancer caused by it on the NHS. According to Dr Max Pemberton, editor of ‘Spectator Health’, the annual cost of treating every case of anal cancer directly related to HPV across the UK is between £70 million and £90 million, whereas the cost of gender-neutral immunisation would only be around £20 million.
It is also apparent that the policy of only vaccinating young girls has had other negative effects. Studies have shown that the public health campaigns which encouraged people to get their daughters vaccinated have given inaccurate impressions about the matter. With the focus on the protection against cervical cancer, many do not realise that HPV can affect both men and women of all ages, and that the jab can also prevent other kinds of HPV related cancers. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention have previously recommended that boys and young men receive the vaccine routinely.
However, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) have noted that while the vaccine is effective, currently including boys in HPV vaccination programmes is not yet proven to be cost-effective. Dr Jessen had this to say: “I understand there’s a need to economise, but this is entirely a false economy and will leave a whole cohort of the population at risk of problems caused by HPV which will be very costly to treat – more costly than the vaccine.”