05 FEBRUARY 2019

This year we are set to see monumental progress for the health of boys in the United Kingdom. Last summer, we celebrated the decision that British schoolboys should be offered a vaccination for the human papillomavirus (HPV). The ruling ended a six-year-long drive by pro-HPV gender-neutral campaigners, led by HPV Action and supported by the Oral Health Foundation.

Health ministers in England, Wales and Scotland announced their intention to extend the vaccination programme for HPV to include adolescent boys, something we believe will lead to greater protection for hundreds of thousands of boys across the country.

The previous programme of a girls-only vaccination has been significantly successful in reducing the number of women diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Despite this, excluding boys for so long has been discriminatory, unfair and unjust. Thanks to this decision, we expect to see a steady decrease in the number of HPV-related illnesses in men; including mouth, penile and anal cancers. In addition to genital warts.

Time is of the essence. We are continuing to push for confirmation that there will be swift and effective implementation across the UK governments, with a start date of no later than this coming September.

Encouragingly, Northern Ireland are beginning to show signs that they intend to align with the rest of the home nations and begin forming a strategy to extend the vaccine to their young boys. Other nations across the world are well ahead of us in this respect but most importantly, we are heading in the right direction.

On the other hand, recent findings from the Royal Society of Public Health give cause for concern that there are potential speed-bumps ahead. Misinformation about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines have been perpetuated across the internet and especially through social media. Half of parents in the UK have been exposed to negative messages about vaccinations. Thankfully, this doesn’t seem to have had a dramatic impact on take-up for the HPV vaccination but in order to avoid a steep drop in figures, widespread education is essential.

In the late 1990s, take-up for the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine took a significant knock due to a research paper that claimed there was a link to autism. The paper was later discredited, but it is a key example of the detrimental effect that misinformation can have. More people need to be aware of the fact that there have been no proven serious side effects from the vaccine. 

For an effective vaccination programme, a high ratio of take-up across the UK is key. This will be made more likely if Brits are educated about vaccination and why it is so important to take advantage of the jab being offered by the NHS.

The next HPV Awareness Day, on March 4, will hopefully go some way to increasing knowledge about the virus at the very least. We encourage as many people to get involved and #AskAboutHPV as much as possible. It is a great opportunity to influence public awareness around something that harms millions. People who are informed are better able to make the best decision.

Speaking of decision making, in 2019 we will continue campaigning for a catch-up programme for young boys in school aged up to 18 who have been left vulnerable and at-risk due to the dithering of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) in their decision making. If 12 and 13-year-old boys are deemed at risk and therefore need a vaccine, why is the risk any less for the two million boys who have been left in the dark over recent years? Lest we forget that back in 2008, when the girls’ programme was launched, a catch-up programme was also introduced to ensure as many girls benefited from the programme as possible. On the grounds of equity and improved pubic health, we will continue to fight for boys to be given the same opportunity.

In 2019, we will aim to take further strides in the right direction. Together we can bring about positive change and provide the framework for healthier future where HPV-related diseases are a thing of the past.