The HPV vaccination programme currently offered by the NHS to girls is set to include all boys in school year 8 in England from September. Human papilloma virus (HPV) may be the cause of most cervical cancers in women, but vaccinating boys will not only help protect their partners who may be susceptible to contracting the virus via sexual transmission, but also reduce the circulation of the virus in general. This in term will help prevent penile, anal and genital cancers, including some cancers that affect the head and neck. It's good news. But, as the announcement that the five-year campaign to make this happen has finally been successful, there's just one question on everyone's lips: what on earth took so long?
One potential argument is that HPV vaccines and associated immunisation programmes are massively expensive. According to published journal by BMJ, female only programmes alone cost approximately £77m a year in the UK. Offering this programme to boys will likely double this cost. And for full protection, boys who have been given parental consent to have the jab will need two doses: the first dose in year 8, and the second follow-up dose six months to two years later. Another argument is that some believe the primary objective in reducing HPV is to simply vaccinate as many young girls as possible, as circulation rates of the virus associated with vaccinating females will ultimately lead to a reduction in HPV diseases in men.
However, the chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, Robert Music, remarked that the move to vaccinate boys was 'a huge leap forward' and added that 'HPV does not discriminate, it can affect everyone, yet there are still many harmful myths and stigmas surrounding it. This is why a universal vaccination programme is so important, as not only will it normalise this very common virus and reduce existing inequalities, it will protect many more people from developing cancer and save lives.'
Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, recently controversially tweeted about the news. He said 'We’re rolling out the highly effective HPV vaccine to boys across the country to protect more girls from cervical cancer.' Twitter users were quick to comment that Hancock has failed to address the fact that the jab will also save men from developing some types of cancer, and so it's beneficial for both sexes, instead of just girls.
One user replied to his tweet by saying 'just as importantly, it protects the boys from penile, anal, and oral cancers,' whilst another commented 'great vaccination program but terrible tweet! It protects boys (and girls) from other cancers caused by HPV too. Shame there’s no catch up program for boys as there is for girls. Health inequalities right there!' Clearly, it seems, a bitter taste has been left by the government's delayed decision to extend the vaccine to boys, and the inequality of access to this preventative treatment.