The HPV vaccine is being made available to both boys and girls for the first time in Ireland from September. This is a hugely positive step that will help to prevent HPV-related cancers in men and women and save many lives into the future.
The HPV vaccine was first made available to 12-year-old girls in 2010 with the purpose of reducing the effects of HPV-related infections, predominately cancerous changes that can happen in the cervix and result in cervical cancer.
It is important to be aware that the human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cancer in areas beyond the cervix, particularly the anal area, and head and neck cancers. These cancers don’t discriminate on the basis of gender – males get cancers from HPV too.
Globally it is estimated that 85 per cent of anal cancers are attributable to HPV infections, and we are now seeing a 20 per cent increase in the incidence of head and neck cancers in Ireland.
Facts show that the side effects from these vaccines are very, very few
Nearly 50 per cent of these cancers are caused by HPV and the majority occur in men. Some 20 countries have now introduced the vaccination for boys, including Australia where the uptake rate is up to 90 per cent.
By vaccinating both boys and girls we are creating what is known as herd immunity or reducing the incidence of the HPV infection being passed on to other people across our communities. If only females get the vaccine, then males can still pick up the HPV infection and could infect other people, while being themselves at risk of the associated cancers.
The other condition that the HPV vaccine prevents, and one that we don’t speak about, is external genital warts which is the most common viral sexually-transmitted infection in Ireland. While it is treatable, prevention through vaccination is a huge step forward in eradicating genital warts in the next generation.
There is evidence from Australia, which introduced this vaccine a lot earlier than us – 2007 for girls and 2013 for boys – that rates of cervical cancer are falling and the incidence of genital warts is following the same pattern. Any opportunity to eradicate cancers – particularly cervical cancer – and reduce the rate of head and neck cancer should absolutely be provided to the next generation.
In addition there has been a 77 per cent reduction in HPV types responsible for almost 75 per cent of cervical cancer. The incidence of genital warts in heterosexual men and women under 21 has reduced by 90 per cent and it is hoped that HPV-related cancers, including cervical cancers, will be eradicated in Australia in the coming decades.
Facts show that the side effects from these vaccines are very, very few. The HPV vaccine has been tried and tested to more than 200 million doses and there is no evidence it has had any significant adverse effects.
I am a parent, and my advice to any other parent who might be hesitant, is to access reliable information such as the Health Service Executive website (hpv.ie), or ask your GP or public health nurse. They can give the scientifically-based evidence that HPV vaccines save lives. Don’t depend on word of mouth – it’s not scientifically based.
Educate yourself and be happy that you’re doing the right thing for your child. There are very few vaccines that actually prevent cancer and this is one of them. This is the future health of your child and your son or daughter will thank you in 10 or 20 years when they don’t get a cancer or genital warts and know that they can look forward to life without HPV.
As this expansion is rolled out it’s important to pause and acknowledge the tireless work of the late Laura Brennan and a number of the other patient advocates who have sought to engage with the public and build confidence in this vaccine. They put themselves out there at a time of great personal suffering to push this agenda with Minister for Health Simon Harris and so many others because they knew its importance.
They shared their personal stories of living with HPV-related illnesses, showing us the strength of the human voice in advocating for prevention through vaccination. We are grateful for their efforts and hope that through public health initiatives such as gender-neutral vaccination that these cancers will become less common.
Professor Mary Horgan is president of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland and a consultant in infectious diseases at Cork University Hospital