HPV vaccine for schoolgirls gets full marks - is it now time for boys to get it too?

Tom Clarke

Former Science Editor

When the HPV vaccine was introduced, it was immediately controversial. It was designed to protect women against cervical cancer caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), a virus spread by sexual contact.

That didn’t go down well with certain religious and parent groups. But there is now absolutely no controversy as to whether the vaccine actually works.

A comprehensive review by the world-renowned Cochrane Collaboration has found that it is highly effective at preventing the precancerous signs of cervical cancer in women and girls who have received the jab.

Importantly, the review also found the vaccine was safe. Like all vaccines, most recipients have some localised side effects afterwards, but there was no evidence of major complications.

The NHS started offering the vaccine to girls aged 13 to 14 a decade ago. Now most young women aged 15 to 25 will have received the jab and, based on the current evidence, be protected for life from infection from the cancer-causing virus.

The cancer takes a long time to develop, so the roll-out won't translate into saved lives for a few decades more, but early evidence from Finland suggests cervical cancer rates there are falling.

The cancer currently kills around 800 women in the UK each year. That’s 800 lives that could now be saved.

The findings of today’s review show the vaccine is so effective it’s rekindling the debate about whether it should now be offered to boys. Boys and men don’t get cervical cancer, but they do play an equal part in spreading HPV.

And they do get other less common, but equally deadly cancers like throat cancer, also caused by HPV infection.

The original argument from the NHS was that boys would be protected by “herd immunity” - the fact that vaccinated girls would prevent them from being infected with HPV.

However 10% of girls and young women still aren’t getting vaccinated which leaves young men and boys at risk of infection. And until last month, gay men had no protection at all.

The NHS now offers the HPV vaccine to gay men via sexual health clinics. But pressure will be mounting on health bosses to offer boys the same protection from HPV that girls can now be reassured they are getting.