UK health officials have announced they will vaccinate boys as well as girls against the human papillomavirus (HPV) in a move that mimics Australia’s world-leading program.
While the rest of the world plays catch up, Australia is on track to become the first country to eradicate cervical cancer, which is caused by the virus.
HPV is a sexually transmitted virus linked to more than 99 per cent of cervical cancers, as well as 90 per cent of anal cancers. It also causes a high amount of vaginal, vulvar and penile cancers.
In 2007, the federal government began providing the free vaccine for girls aged 12 to 13 years and in 2013 it extended the program to boys.
Professor Beate Kampmann, director of the vaccine centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “It’s pleasing to see the UK follow the example of other countries like Australia.”
“The vaccine has been implemented for girls since 2007 and for boys since 2013. This has resulted in the HPV rate among women aged 18 to 24 dropping from 22 per cent to 1 per cent between 2005 and 2015. This success speaks for itself.”
Not only does Australia have low HPV rates but it will eradicate cervical cancer completely within the century, co-inventor of the vaccine Dr Ian Frazer said.
“In terms of eliminating it, that means that you get 400 cases per year. We’re predicted to reach that by 2040, and we should eradicate it by the end of the century.”
Dr Frazer said that it is hard to quantify how much vaccinating boys has helped lower the rates of the virus.
“It’s difficult to distinguish … because the same net result is a gradual reduction of cervical cancer among women. I think it’ll result in faster eradication,” Dr Frazer said.
The anti-vaxx lobby
While the rate of HPV among women aged 18 to 24 has dropped to 1.1 per cent, the uptake has not been across the board.
“We’re not so good at immunising migrant populations, and there are places where the general uptake is low. For example, there’s quite a large area around Brisbane, not in Brisbane but around it,” Dr Frazer said.
Comparatively, the anti-vaccine lobby is quite small in Australia, but its influence can still be seen.
“There’s an anti-vaccine lobby and there are people who listen to them. They say they [vaccines] are not safe, which they are and they say they’re not effective, which they are,” Dr Frazer said.
“The lobby is small and they’re entitled to their views, but they’re wrong.
“The 10 per cent of the population they influence because they spread misinformation, they’re who I’m worried about.”
Not just girls
Cancer Council Australia CEO Professor Sanchia Aranda said it was important to remember HVP also leads to cancers in other parts of the body, such as the penis and throat.
“Most people associate it with cervical cancers but there is a range of cancers, from the back of the throat and other organs, like the anus, vagina, penis,” Professor Aranda said.
“Those have been on the increase in the last several decades. Men who have sex with men think they aren’t affected but, of course, they can transmit it through anal sex.
“Same-sex-attracted women can also transmit it from one woman to another.”
Last year the government introduced a more advanced screening program that could eradicate cervical cancer even sooner, she said.
“We really encourage women to participate in the screening program. Women who are past 25 should see their doctor about it.”