The NHS will expand the HPV vaccination programme to include all boys in school year 8 in England from September, safeguarding them and girls from a range of cancers.
By 2058, which will be the 50th anniversary of the launch of HPV vaccination for girls, Public Health England claims the programme may have prevented more than 100,000 cancers across the UK.
Human papilloma virus (HPV) is the cause of most cervical cancers in women. Because the virus is sexually transmitted, vaccinating boys will help protect their partners, but reducing the circulation of the virus, which is linked to 5% of cancers, will also help prevent penile, anal and genital cancers and some cancers of the head and neck.
There has been a long campaign to vaccinate boys as well as girls at about the age of 12, and Scotland and Wales have already announced its introduction. Prof Beate Kampmann, the director of the vaccine centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, called the decision “a triumph for gender equality in cancer prevention.
“It’s pleasing to see the UK follow the example of other countries like Australia, where the vaccine has been implemented for girls since 2007 and for boys in 2013. This has resulted in the HPV rate among women aged 18 to 24 dropping from 22% to 1% between 2005 and 2015. This success speaks for itself. We now have the tools to eradicate most HPV-associated cancers for men and women.”
Robert Music, the chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, named after Jo Maxwell who died of the disease 20 years ago at the age of 40, said the move was “a huge leap forward” for prevention of all cancers caused by the virus.
“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,” he said.
It was important the uptake of the vaccine remained high, he said. HPV vaccination programmes have struggled in some countries against stigma – because of sexual transmission – and scare stories. Japan suspended vaccination because of fears that it caused pain and fatigue in teenage girls, which was investigated by the European Medicines Agency and discounted.
The University of Warwick carried out modelling to establish the likely impact after 50 years, when those vaccinated will have reached the age group when cancer is most common. It predicts that 64,138 HPV-related cervical cancers and 49,649 other HPV-related cancers will be prevented.
Recent data suggested that HPV infections could be wiped out in affluent countries within decades. Data by Canadian researchers published in the Lancet showed an 83% reduction in infections in 15- to 19-year-old girls over five to eight years. The World Health Organization has set a goal to cut the number of cases of cervical cancer to no more than four per 100,000 people, below the threshold for a rare disease.
Dr Mary Ramsay, the head of immunisation at Public Health England, encouraged parents to take up the offer of vaccination for boys. “This universal programme offers us the opportunity to make HPV-related diseases a thing of the past and build on the success of the girls’ programme,” she said.
The public health minister, Seema Kennedy, encouraged everyone eligible to be vaccinated. “Through our world-leading vaccination programme, we have already saved millions of lives and prevented countless cases of terrible diseases. Experts predict that we could be on our way toward eliminating cervical cancer for good,” she said.
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