HPV vaccination of boys imminent, but a million will miss out

News Published: 
9 July 2019

The Faculty of General Dental Practice has reacted with dismay to the government’s decision to deny immunisation against human papillomavirus (HPV) to over a million schoolboys.


Public Health England (PHE) has announced that the new HPV vaccination programme for 12-13 year old (Year 8) boys will start in the school year beginning this September, but also confirmed that it will not offer a catch-up programme to boys in Years 9-13.


The Faculty, based at the Royal College of Surgeons, is a member of HPV Action, the group which led the successful campaign for boys to be vaccinated. Earlier this year its Dean, Ian Mills, signed a letter to the then Minister for Public Health calling for a catch-up programme for boys to mirror that offered when vaccination for girls was introduced in 2008.


HPV affects 80% of men at some point in their lives, causes 5% of all cancers and is the leading cause of oropharyngeal cancers. Over 2,000 men a year in the UK are diagnosed with an HPV-related cancer, of whom almost half will die from the condition within five years.


Research commissioned by PHE estimates that the new programme, together with the programme for girls, could prevent over 100,000 incidences of cancer by 2058. This includes over 30,000 instances of oropharyngeal cancer - 70% of which would have been in men - as well as over 7,500 instances in men of other cancers.


However, while the implementation of vaccination for Year 8 boys in 2019 protects one more year group than a delay to 2020 would have done, the decision not to offer a catch-up programme leaves five older year groups in England - around a million boys - vulnerable to HPV-related cancers in later life, while the girls in their classes will be protected. Girls who for any reason miss vaccination at school also have the right to receive the vaccine on the NHS at any point up to their 25th birthday.


Ian Mills commented:


Dentists see the devastation that oral cancers wreak on patients and their families, so it is great news that 12 year old boys will finally start getting the HPV vaccine this year. However the decision not to offer a catch-up programme is wrong-headed and will lead to more needless deaths. In the UK, we spend over £400m a year on cancer research, yet we have a vaccine which provides effective immunisation against a number of cancer-causing strains of HPV and we’re not making the most of it.


“The opportunity must be seized to vaccinate as many boys as possible while they are still at school, and the government’s decision not to do so in England is dissonant with its recent trailing of a green paper on preventative healthcare. I only hope that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland decide to do the right thing and protect all their schoolchildren when implementing their own HPV vaccination programmes for boys.”


Update, 10 July 2019:

Ian has also written to Editor of The Daily Telegraph to highlight the lack of a catch-up programme. A copy of his letter is here.