Boys aged 12 and 13 will be offered the HPV vaccine in all British schools from September, in a move health officials say will prevent thousands of cancer cases.
The jab would protect against a range of cancers caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) including throat, penile and anal strains of the disease.
The National Health Service (NHS) will offer the vaccine free to boys in Year Eight of secondary schools across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – 11 years after the measure was introduced for girls.
In total, the HPV vaccine program could prevent over 100,000 cases of cancer by 2058, officials said.HPV is a group of 150 related viruses that can be transmitted through any form of sexual contact, whether kissing or intercourse.
In most cases, the human body will get rid of it naturally, but certain high-risk types can develop into things like genital warts and cancers.
About 5% of all cancers worldwide are linked to the HPV virus, including cervical cancer and some affecting the head and neck. In the United States, high-risk HPV infections cause about 3% of all cancers in women and 2% in men, according to the National Cancer Institute.
To date 10 million doses of HPV vaccine have been given to young women in Britain, meaning that more than eight out of ten women aged 15 to 24 have been vaccinated.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “almost every person who is sexually active will get HPV at some time in their life if they don’t get the HPV vaccine.”
The vaccine is a mimic of the virus particle, but when administered into someone’s muscle, it creates many more antibodies than a natural infection would, according to John Doorbar, professor of viral pathogenesis at the University of Cambridge.
Public Health England found that since the jab was introduced infections of some types of HPV (HPV 16/18) in 16 to 21 year old women have reduced by 86 per cent in England. A Scottish study also showed that the vaccine has reduced pre-cancerous cervical disease in women by up to 71 per cent.
Besides protecting boys, the new development will also help reduce the overall number of cervical cancers in women, through a process known as “herd immunity.”
The government body cited research by the University of Warwick which estimated that, as a whole, the HPV vaccine programme could prevent up to 64,138 cervical cancers and 49,649 other cancers by 2058 - 50 years after it was first introduced for girls. That would include some 30,000 cancer cases in males.
Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at Public Health England (PHE), encouraged parents of all eligible children to “take up the offer for this potentially life-saving vaccine” without delay.
In a statement, she added: “This universal programme offers us the opportunity to make HPV-related diseases a thing of the past and build on the success of the girls’ programme.
“Offering the vaccine to boys will not only protect them but will also prevent more cases of HPV-related cancers in girls and reduce the overall burden of these cancers in both men and women in the future.”
It is important not to delay the vaccine as it can become less effective as adolescents grow older, according to Dr Ramsay. A second dose is administered between six and 24 months after the initial jab.
Extensive research of the vaccine by leading health bodies worldwide shows that it offers protection for at least a decade, although experts say it could last for much longer and may even be lifelong, according to Public Health England.
The USA is one of the few other countries to offer the vaccine to boys. Last month the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, known as ACIP, voted unanimously to recommend HPV vaccines for both boys and girls and men and women until age 26.
Previously it recommended that teen girls and young women who had not been adequately vaccinated receive the vaccine up to 26, but the recommendation for teen boys and young men only went up to 21.
Prof Arne Akbar, president of the British Society for Immunology, said in reaction to the news: “The extension of the HPV vaccine to boys will build on the proven success of the girls’ program to protect boys from human papilloma virus infections that can cause a variety of cancers including those of the anus, mouth and throat.
“The government now needs to work with the NHS and local authorities to ensure that we maintain efforts to actively communicate the important health benefits of this vaccine to parents and adolescents. We encourage parents of eligible boys and girls to take up the offer and protect future generations against these preventable diseases with the HPV vaccine.”