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Dublin: 10°C Wednesday 23 June 2021

As HPV-linked cancers increase, should boys get the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine can prevent men from contracting genital warts and a number of HPV-associated cancers – but in Ireland it is only offered for free to girls.

About 80% of people will have a HPV infection at some time in their lives.
About 80% of people will have a HPV infection at some time in their lives.
Image: Shutterstock/stanislave

A SYMPOSIUM ABOUT cervical cancer will today hear that there has been an increase in the HPV strain in head and neck cancers, calling into question whether a vaccine is needed for young boys.

The awareness symposium Cerviva, which coincides with European Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, will speak about the developments in the HPV infection and different ways of combating it.

Among the interesting findings, is the rise of HPV in cancers other than cervical cancer, including a significant rise in some head and neck cancers.

HPV (human papilloma virus) is very common virus or infection, and is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) worldwide.

Most HPV infections have no noticeable symptoms and over 90% are cleared by the body’s immune system. However, some people will develop infections that need treatment.

Although it’s thought that men aren’t affected by the virus because of it’s strong link to cervical cancer, men are at risk and encouraged to get the vaccine.

The HPV vaccine can prevent men from contracting genital warts as well as HPV-associated cancers. The primary forms of cancers caused by HPV are:

  • cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancer in women
  • penile cancer in men
  • throat and anal cancer in men and women.

For women, the provision of the vaccine to girls in their first year of secondary school has been in place in Ireland since 2010.

When it was then introduced by Minister for Health Mary Harney, the plan was originally to roll the free vaccine out to boys as well – but this has yet to happen.

In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of oropharyngeal cancers associated with HPV in particular among young men.

Dr Cara Martin, Assistant Professor in Molecular Pathology and Tumour Biology, says that although the HPV vaccine was developed to prevent cervical cancer, “it is likely that the HPV vaccine might also prevent oropharyngeal cancers [throat cancers]“.

This is because the vaccine prevents the development of cancers, but she stresses that more studies are needed into HPV in oral cancer and how the HPV vaccine could impact on this.

This month, the HPV vaccine was made available through the STI services to ‘Men who have Sex with Men’ (MSM, the HSE’s technical term for gay men) aged under 26 years of age.

In the past year, the HSE has been battling rumours that the HPV vaccine causes severe side effects, despite no clinical evidence to prove or represent this claim.

This means that there has been a drop off in the uptake of the vaccine, which is thought will lead to more cervical cancer deaths.

Other findings

The audience at Cerviva will also hear the interim results of a HPV primary screening pilot study underway in Ireland, so far involving 6,000 women.

The study, funded by the Health Research Board, is being conducted in partnership with CervicalCheck, the national cervical screening programme.

This is the first study of its kind internationally, embedded within a national screening programme, found that within the population of 6,000 women:

  • 15% tested positive for HPV DNA
  • Women under the age of 30 were significantly more likely to test positive for HPV -those aged 30-39 were at a higher risk compared to those aged 50 years and over.

These data provide important information to policy makers and should inform decisions around HPV-based primary screening tests. They should also be helpful in predicting the potential impact HPV vaccination will have on HPV prevalence rates in Ireland.

International experts will also talk about the impact that HPV vaccination has had on HPV prevalence in Scotland and about the rates of abnormal smears and the incidence of cervical pre-cancer in young women attending for cervical screening.

FactCheck: No, the reported side effects of the HPV vaccine do NOT outweigh the proven benefits

Read: ‘Forty young Irish girls will die of cervical cancer as a result of falling HPV vaccine rates’ says Fine Gael TD

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