Ministers must act to protect boys from HPV-related cancers
The government must bring an end to the discrimination against boys and immunise all adolescents from Human Papilloma Virus, writes Baroness Altmann
All girls aged 12 or 13 are routinely vaccinated to protected them against HPV (Human Papilloma Virus). This can prevent life-threatening cancers but is only offered to girls, not boys. HPV is a sexually transmitted virus affecting about 80% of all adults. Once someone has it, about one in 20 will develop cancers from it.
The incidence of HPV-related cancers is increasing faster than other cancers. That is why vaccination in school is so important. It can be largely avoided by inoculating children before they become sexually active. The vaccine is safe, involves just two jabs costing under £20 each and has been widely used for girls for ten years. It works equally well at preventing HPV infection in either sex.
So, when will the government agree to protect all boys too from these HPV-related cancers? That is a question I will be posing to ministers on 26 March, with support from Peers across the House.
Any parents or grandparents would be concerned to know their sons and grandsons are being discriminated against in this way.
Much evidence suggests that men are most at risk of developing HPV-related oral cancers (tongue, throat, larynx, oesophagus) and the treatment is gruelling, requires many months off work and leaves many with permanent side-effects.
Astonishingly, however, an interim Report by the Department of Health’s advisory body – the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisation (JCVI) – suggested it is not worth bothering to immunise boys, as it would be cheaper to treat the cancers they develop in later life! This seems worryingly short-sighted. Many groups suggest its reasoning and assumptions (which are being kept secret) are flawed.
Firstly, it would cost under £20m a year – out of total NHS spending of £148bn – that is around 0.0001% of the budget. Secondly, who knows what the costs of cancer treatment in future will be, as more expensive treatments may be developed, so the assumptions could be wrong. Thirdly, of course, just considering cost estimates ignores the human suffering and wider social impacts which could be avoided.
Another explanation used for not vaccinating boys is that this is not necessary, since vaccinating all girls means the boys are automatically protected. If girls do not get HPV, then sexual activity does not put boys at risk. This argument is manifestly flawed. The concept of so-called ‘herd immunity’ cannot be relied upon.
In partial recognition of this, the NHS announced it will offer HPV vaccination to gay men, since they would not be protected by stopping girls from developing HPV. This logic, too, does not stand up to scrutiny and further exposes the discrimination against young boys.
Boys who go abroad and have sexual relationships, for example, will clearly not be protected by a British vaccination programme. And take-up of the immunisation by girls is only around 85%, so many are still at risk of developing HPV.
Here we have an effective treatment which could be offered to all our children to help them avoid cancer, and the Government says it will only protect girls and not boys. A campaign called ‘Jabs for the Boys’ is trying to press for an end to this discrimination.
The Throat Cancer Foundation is considering legal action on the grounds of sexual discrimination and I hope to ask the government if it has sought legal advice as to whether refusing to vaccinate boys constitutes discrimination under the UK Equality Act. Dentists are seeing rising numbers of male patients with HPV-related oral cancers and are so concerned that many are deciding to pay for private vaccinations for their sons. I urge MPs and Peers to press the Government to agree to immunise all adolescents equally.
The way to protect men is to vaccinate boys. I really hope ministers will respond positively to the Lords Question and that we may be able to ensure incidence of these dreadful cancers is controlled as effectively as possible.
Ros Altmann is a Conservative peer. Her oral question will take place on Monday 26 March.