Irish Times view on HPV vaccine for boys: gender neutral healthcare

Extending programme to boys aged 12-13 represents prudent use of public funds

Human papilloma virus (HPV) infection represents an increasing health burden. Some 540 cases of cancer associated with HPV infection are diagnosed every year in the Republic. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted virus. Up to 80 per cent of males and females will become infected by 50 years of age. In addition to cancer of the cervix, HPV has been implicated in cancers of the vulva, penis, anus and throat. No treatment exists for HPV infection; therefore the real prospect of its eradication by immunisation offers a significant health gain.

Available to girls under the State’s national vaccination programme since 2010, the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) has issued a draft recommendation that HPV vaccine be offered to boys as well. “Extending the current girls-only HPV immunisation programme to include boys would reduce HPV-related disease in males and females in Ireland, improving patient-related outcomes and reducing mortality from HPV-related cancers,” the Hiqa report states. It has invited public feedback before final recommendations are made.

A formal European Medicines Agency review into the HPV vaccine found it to be efficacious and safe. More than 270 million doses of the vaccine have been administered worldwide, with no evidence of long-term side-effects in either males or females. The vaccine is currently administered to boys and girls in a number of countries including Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Speaking earlier this month, the Australian principal developer of the HPV vaccine, Prof Ian Frazer, said the vaccination programme against cervical cancer in Australia is so successful it is expected that within 10 years, no women will develop the condition there.

It is important to assess the extension of HPV vaccination to boys against a background of health equality. Many will feel there is an ethical imperative for gender-neutral vaccination. At an additional cost of €10.4 million over five years, the extension of HPV vaccine to boys aged 12 to 13, represents prudent use of public funds.