Recent sexually transmitted infection (STI) figures from Public Health England show that young women are continuing to benefit from the introduction of the nationwide Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccination programme in 2008.
All girls aged 12 to 13 are offered the vaccine as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme, and an eight per cent reduction in the number of recorded cases of genital warts (90% of which are caused by HPV types 6 and 11) in young women in 2015 demonstrates the positive effect it is having. The vaccine also protects against 70% of cervical cancers.
However, the data also shows that boys are not getting the same level of protection. There was a six per cent decrease in the number of diagnoses of genital warts in men between 2014 and 2015, two per cent less than the reduction seen in females. This demonstrates that ‘herd’ protection expected by vaccinating girls is not protecting all men. Men who have sex with men are still at a high risk of exposure to HPV as they fall outside the vaccinated ‘herd’ and men who have sexual contact with women who have not been vaccinated also lack protection.
Although there are plans to offer HPV vaccinations to men who have sex with men up to the age of 45 via sexual health and HIV clinics, this is not enough. Not all men who have sex with men attend clinics, and the men who do are highly likely to already be sexually active. To be most effective, boys should be vaccinated before their sexual debut and, since asking 12 and 13-year-old boys about their sexuality would be unethical and simply ineffective, this should be all boys.
Although cost-effectiveness is debated, frequently cited analyses do not include the protective effect of HPV vaccination against devastating head, neck, anal and penile cancers. Furthermore, only vaccinating girls perpetuates a stereotype that females should take responsibility for protecting both their own and other people’s sexual health.
This is why we support a gender neutral vaccination programme (which is the already the case in other countries, such as Australia). The consequences of not including boys is too serious to ignore.