Gay men in England will now be offered a vaccine that reduces the risk of certain cancers, in a pilot scheme to start in June. Already offered to school-age girls since 2008, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine has been deemed to be a resounding success in cutting the infection rates of HPV, which can increase the risk of developing cervical cancer. But HPV infection is not only limited to women, and has also been implicated in the development of penile, anal, and oral cancers.
The original reasoning to vaccinate young girls for the virus, which is commonly spread through sexual contact, was that any men who then have sex with women will also be protected under herd immunity. But this failed to take into consideration that some men don’t have sex with women at all. Because of this, it was decided last year that gay men up to the age of 45 should also be offered the HPV vaccine.
HPV is not actually a single virus, but is a group of around 100 different types, of which around 40 are thought to affect the genital area. They are incredibly common, with around half of all people likely to be affected by one type during their lifetime, though some forms have been implicated in increasing a person’s risk of more serious conditions. These include various forms of cancer, from vaginal to oral, but also genital warts.
The government initially said in November last year that they would roll out vaccinations for all gay men, but the latest announcement falls slightly short of that. For this reason, it has attracted criticism from some circles.
“There is no doubt that men who have sex with men (MSM) are at high risk of HPV which, if left untreated, can cause head, neck, penile and anal cancers,” said Dr. Shaun Griffin of the Terrence Higgins Trust, a British charity that aims to reduce the spread of HIV and promote good sexual health, in a statement. “But the announcement of this pilot feels like a cynical stalling tactic."
Griffin added: “We know there is a clinic in North West London which already give HPV vaccinations to MSM, with fantastic take-up and results, so there is simply no need for another pilot – the evidence is already there. More test sites will only delay implementation of a full national program where all men who have sex with men are given this life-saving vaccine which could prevent them from getting cancer.”
The vaccine, which needs three separate jabs, will be offered to gay men with existing appointments at sexual health clinics from June this year. If successful, the government says they will then roll it out across the country and offer it to all gay men in England, something that Wales has said they will already do.