Extending the HPV vaccine to gay men could help the fight against cancer.
Dr Gillian Prue, lecturer of chronic illness at Queen’s University of Belfast, recently published in the British Medical Journal, that the current girl-only vaccination programme leaves men who have sex with men (MSM) at risk of infection from the human papilloma viruses (HPV).
HPV is a common virus that has more than a 100 different strains. Some of them being common and relatively harmless with most people having some form of the virus during their lifetime. For most people, it will cause no symptoms and goes away on its own.
But there are some strains of HPV that can cause changes in the cells of the lining of the mouth and throat as well as the penis and anus, known as high-risk HPVs. These changed cells have an increased risk of becoming cancerous.
There are also strains of HPV that cause warts and verrucas, most commonly found on the hands, feet, genital area and anus. But can also be found elsewhere on the body.
The danger with HPV is that it can be easily spread through skin contact, open mouth kissing and certain sexual acts. Infection is common in men and reports of infection have increased in the past two decades with HPV causing 5% of all human cancers.
In September 2008, a free vaccination has been readily available for young girls aged between 12-13 in the UK with a catch-up programme for girls up to 18. Heterosexual men gain protection from the virus via vaccinated women but gay and bisexual men have no such protection and are therefore at a higher risk of infection.
But by introducing the vaccination to men, vaccinated men would be protected against non-vaccinated girls and other men.
Many countries have already introduced the HPV vaccination to boys such as Canada, Australia and the US. Studies have shown that vaccinating boys will produce both health and economic benefits, reducing the incidences of HPV-related genital warts and cancerous cells developing.
And although gay and bisexual men are at a higher risk of infections, a programme targeted solely at the gay and bisexual men in the UK would be limited because many gay and bisexual men acquire HPV as teenagers and many have already been exposed to HPV already according to Prue. It has also been criticised that such a programme would appear to discriminate against young heterosexual men who are also susceptible to the risk of HPV.
Last November the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation agreed to begin work on the possibility of offering the HPV vaccination to adolescent boys and MSM. No doubt the main deterrent for introducing the vaccination will be the cost of the vaccination, estimated to around £24,000,000.
The most beneficial response to this would be a gender neutral vaccination strategy in schools. Anything else would simply be discriminatory. With the cost of the vaccination paling in comparison to the cost of cancer treatment caused by HPV, it seems like the next logical step in the fight against cancer.
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