You’ve probably heard of HPV. A highly infectious virus that is particularly dangerous to women, as it is connected to cervical cancer. But did you know that it is also linked to cancer in men? Thankfully, there is a vaccine for HPV and later this year it will be easily accessible for boys through a school-based vaccination program. Professor Chris Nutting is here to explain.
What is HPV?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of common highly infectious viruses that affect the skin. There are over 100 types of HPV, and while some strains cause symptoms like genital warts, most people do not experience symptoms, and may not even know they have it. Experts believe that most people will catch some form of HPV at some point in their life. There is no treatment, but the body tends to clear the virus itself over the course of a few months.
However, there is a reason that HPV is a big concern. Some types of HPV (dubbed “high-risk HPV”) can lead to long term infection and cause abnormal changes in the cells it infects, causing them to turn cancerous. High-risk HPV has been linked to the following cancers:
- Cervical cancer
- Vulval cancer
- Vaginal cancer
- Anal cancer
- Cancer of the penis
- Certain head and neck cancers – cancers of the tongue and tonsils
In the UK, routine vaccination of school-aged girls to prevent cervical cancer was introduced 11 years ago, and in that time there has been a dramatic drop in cervical cancer in young women.
Vaccine success in women
The British Medical Journal recently published research done in Scotland that indicated that the HPV vaccine had virtually wiped out cases of cervical pre-cancer in young women. The study involved 140,000 young women and showed that in routine smear tests done at age 20, the rate of pre-cancerous cells had fallen by around 90%. It is thought that similar effectiveness will be seen in other areas of the UK where girls aged 12-13 have also been vaccinated.
The vaccination programme has been described as “exceeding expectations.”
HPV vaccination for boys
The study is not just important in the battle against cervical cancer; HPV is a leading cause of various other cancers, including certain head and neck cancers that have been on the rise in recent years, especially tonsil and tongue cancer in men.
However, there has been a campaign to extend the vaccination programme to boys as well as girls in an effort to eradicate cancers caused by the virus. A week after an advisory committee of experts recommended this action, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has confirmed that HPV vaccinations will be available for boys from September in England, with Scotland and Wales following suit. It is hoped that Northern Ireland will issue a similar announcement.
Hope for the future
This development offers hope for the battle against HPV. The UK will be in a strong position to combat and eliminate the cause of various types of cancer, which could save hundreds of lives and keep thousands from having to endure cancer therapy.
Extending vaccinations to boys will allow us to build on the success achieved by the girls’ vaccination programme. We will be fighting the cancer-causing variants of HPV without one hand tied behind our backs – with both teenage boys and girls fully protected.
This is a real milestone in the battle against cancer.
For more information or to book an appointment, visit Professor Nutting’s Top Doctors profile.