Human papillomavirus (HPV) infections cause up to 420 cancer cases a year, and up to 130 cancer deaths, according to the National Cancer Registry (NCRI). That up to 100 HPV-related deaths are preventable by immunisation is a reminder of the powerful preventive role of the HPV vaccine. HPV is the name for a large group of viruses, approximately 170 of which are known to infect humans. Almost all sexually active men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives.
Although HPV infection is firmly linked in the public mind as a cause of cancer of the cervix, it’s role in causing head and neck cancers, and tumours of the penis and vagina is less well known. With the incidence of HPV-associated cancers growing at a rate of two per cent a year, the NCRI report points out that effective use of the current vaccine could over time prevent up to two-thirds of all cancers associated with HPV in Irish women. And it states that half of all HPV-associated cancers in men could be prevented if the immunisation programme was extended to boys.
However before any extension is contemplated, action is needed to reverse the dramatic decline in HPV vaccine uptake among teenage girls. Immunisation rates have fallen from 87 per cent to just 50 per cent in recent years, since the vaccine was offered free to first year girls in secondary schools in 2010.
To date some 660,000 doses of the HPV vaccine, Gardasil 4, have been administered to girls in the Republic. And despite claims of side-effects by the campaign group Regret, no scientific evidence of serious adverse events has emerged. The World Health Organisation Global Advisory Committee for Vaccine Safety (GACVS) has reviewed the safety of Gardasil vaccine and concluded it has an excellent safety profile. The European Medicines Agency (EMA), in its report on HPV vaccines, found no evidence the vaccine was linked to chronic fatigue-like conditions.
Extending the vaccine programme to boys would be welcome but the HSE must first urgently address the uptake deficit among teenage girls.