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Why the battle against deadly virus must include both sexes

The health service HPV vaccination programme is currently only offered to girls, however, calls are now being made to protect boys and men too. Lisa Salmon finds out why

Boots has just launched a new HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccination service for boys and Jeff Brazier is fronting the campaign. "As a family, we know first-hand how heartbreaking the consequences of HPV can be," says the TV presenter, whose former partner Jade Goody died of HPV-related cervical cancer in 2009 aged 27, leaving their two young sons Bobby and Freddie, now aged 12 and 13, without a mother.

"Although awareness of female HPV-related diseases is relatively high, many parents don't realise how HPV-related conditions and cancers can affect boys as well as girls.

"It's essential that parents are educated on this and realise there are options for protecting their sons as well as daughters."

So why aren't boys currently included in the NHS HPV vaccination programme, and do they really need the jab?

Girls aged 12-13 have been vaccinated against HPV through the NHS programme since 2008 to protect them against cervical cancer.

According to Cancer Research UK, around 3,100 people are diagnosed with this type of cancer in the UK each year and almost all (99.7%) are related to HPV. However, HPV is very common and it's important to remember that catching HPV does not mean you are automatically going to get cancer. Boys aren't included in the NHS HPV vaccination programme as they can't get cervical cancer.

Emerging evidence, however, shows that as well as causing cervical cancer in women and genital warts in both sexes, HPV can also be responsible for penile (47%), anal (80-85%) and some head and neck (16%) cancers in men. In 2009, soon after the girls' HPV vaccination programme began, there were more than 6,500 cases of penile, anal and oropharyngeal cancers.

That's why gender-neutral HPV vaccination campaign group HPV Action, believes boys should be vaccinated too. "Not vaccinating boys, and thus protecting men, suggests we don't value the health of men very much," says Peter Baker, HPV Action campaign director. "HPV is an equal opportunity virus - it doesn't care who it infects, so you need an equal opportunity response."

Worldwide, HPV is the most widespread of all sexually-transmitted viruses, and four out of five (80%) people will contract some type of the virus at least once in their lifetime.

TV's Dr Christian Jessen explains the virus is spread by close skin-to-skin or sexual contact with a previously infected person. "Vaccinating against HPV is as important for males as it is for females," he stresses.

Although vaccinating girls doesn't directly protect males, it does give them 'herd protection', meaning that while boys aren't immunised themselves, most of the females they're likely to have sex with would be, so they'd be less likely to catch HPV. This is one of the arguments against including boys in the NHS vaccine programme, particularly where cost-effectiveness is concerned. However, more is now known about the direct risks to males from the virus.

Also, while uptake rates among girls are generally very high, not all of them opt to have the vaccine. "Then there's men who have sex with men, who are completely unprotected by the vaccination programme aimed at girls," says Baker, who also points out that people may be at risk when having sex with somebody from a country that doesn't have a vaccination programme at all.

"An increasing list of countries are vaccinating both sexes, so this isn't some kind of weird idea," says Baker. "It's becoming a widespread global public health policy and the UK is in danger of being left behind."

Despite considering the matter since 2013, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), the independent expert body which advises the government on vaccinations, has yet to make a decision on whether to extend the NHS HPV vaccination programme to boys. Progress will next be reviewed in June.

Although it's not clear exactly how much it would cost to include boys, HPV Action thinks it would be considerably cheaper than money currently spent treating genital warts caused by HPV (which affects 48,000 men a year) and HPV-related cancers in men.

Boots UK now offers a private HPV vaccination service, costing £300 for a course of two vaccinations for 12-14-year-olds, or £450 for people aged 15-plus who need a course of three. Visit boots.com/health-pharmacy-advice/ vaccinations/hpv

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