Boys in the UK will be given the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine from September in a bid to prevent several different forms of cancer, the government has announced.
Boys who are aged 12 and 13 will be eligible to receive the vaccine from the start of the new school year, with parental consent.
The jab protects against human papilloma virus, which causes many oral, throat and anal cancers.
What is HPV?
HPV is a sexually transmitted virus linked to more than 99% of cervical cancers, as well as 90% of anal cancers, about 70% of vaginal and vulvar cancers and more than 60% of penile cancers.
“There are over 100 strains of HPV, most of which are not dangerous,” explains Dr Kathryn Basford, GP at Zava UK. “Many types of the virus can cause harmless growths, such as verrucas and genital warts, and it is very common for people who are infected to not develop any symptoms or complications at all.
“Most people will have an infection with HPV at some time in their lives, but it will clear up on its own,” Dr Basford continues.
“It is only the high risk strains of HPV which are linked with cancer and only a small number of people who get these high risk strains actually go on to have cancer.”
Until now, only girls aged 12 to 13 have been offered the HPV vaccine since 2008 in the UK.
Boys will need two doses of the jab for full protection: the first dose will be given in Year 8, with a follow-up dose six months to two years later, which will also be given in school.
Health officials say the vaccine could prevent 29,000 cancers in UK men in the next 40 years.
Seeing as there is no cure for HPV, prevention through the vaccine and practising safe sex are recommended by doctors.
READ MORE: What is HPV and what are the symptoms?
What is the HPV vaccine, what does it protect against?
“The HPV vaccination used most commonly in the UK is called Gardasil,” explains Dr Basford. “Gardasil protects against 4 types of HPV including the two forms that cause most cervical cancers, along with some anal and genital cancers, and certain cancers of the head and neck in both men and women.”
Gardasil also prevents against the two HPV types that cause the majority of genital warts cases, so there are numerous benefits to getting vaccinated.
Why are boys now getting the jab?
Mainly because the programme to vaccinate teenage girls, and reduce cervical cancers, has proven to be highly effective.
More than 10million girls have already been vaccinated against HPV – around 80 per cent of all women now aged 18 to 24.
PHE estimates that 85,000 cancers will be prevented in women, including 64,000 cases of cervical cancer, thanks to the vaccine.
“Last June Public Health England reported the results of a major study that showed a remarkable 82% decrease in the prevalence of cancer-causing HPV infections within the English female population – a fantastic outcome,” explains Dr Elizabeth Marsh, Lecturer in Cellular and Molecular Biology at the University of Derby.
A recent review of studies also indicated that cervical cancer could one day be eradicated, thanks to the HPV jab.
A recent Lancet review of 65 studies (detailing data taken from 60 million people) showed a decline in cases of people with the HPV virus and pre-cancerous growth cells.
Researchers who carried out the review believe this will add up to a continued fall over the coming decades, potentially seeing the disease wiped out.
To protect the population even further, and also reduce cancers of the anus, penis and head and neck in the future, experts believe the HPV vaccine should be offered to boys too.
“99% of cervical cancer cases are caused by HPV, which explains the previous focus on vaccinating girls,” Dr Basford explains. “But the programme has proven so successful that there are now plans to vaccinate boys to help protect both genders even further.”
Why do boys and girls need the vaccine at that age?
According to the NHS the HPV vaccine works best if boys and girls get it before they become sexually active.
“HPV infections can be spread by any skin-to-skin contact and are usually found on the fingers, hands, mouth and genitals,” the site explains.
This means the virus can be spread during any kind of sexual activity, including touching.
Therefore the HPV vaccine works best if girls and boys get it before they come into contact with HPV.
While a large proportion of boys may have been protected by immunisation among girls they may go on to have sex with, introducing the vaccine for boys as well ensure protection across the population.
Though boys aged 12 and 13 are only just being offered the vaccine now, a catch-up programme for older boys is not needed as evidence suggests they're already benefitting greatly from the indirect protection (known as herd protection) that's built up from 10 years of the girls' HPV vaccination programme.
How is the vaccine given?
Currently, the HPV vaccine is currently given as a series of 2 injections into the upper arm.
They're spaced at least 6 months apart, and people who missed their HPV vaccination offered at school can get the vaccine for free up to their 25th birthday.
It's important to have both vaccine doses to be protected.