Doctors and health professionals are regularly paying hundreds of pounds for their teenage sons to receive a vaccination against cancer that girls already receive for free on the NHS, the Victoria Derbyshire programme has been told. Is boys’ health being put at risk?
“Had the HPV vaccine been available when I was a boy, I believe I would not have developed throat cancer more than 30 years later,” said Jamie Rae, 53.
“I’m basing this on the overwhelming majority of research I have seen over the years and countless experts I have spoken to.
“That’s why I’m desperate for boys to be able to receive it.”
HPV is the name given to a large group of viruses. It is very common and can be caught through any kind of sexual contact with another person who already has it.
Doctors say 90% of HPV infections go away by themselves – but sometimes infections can lead to a variety of serious problems.
For boys, this includes cancer of the anus, penis, mouth and throat.
Since 2008, girls aged 12 to 18 across the UK have been offered HPV vaccinations as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme.
It is currently not offered to boys of the same age, but it can be done privately, costing several hundred pounds.
Mr Rae founded the Throat Cancer Foundation after the treatment he received in 2010. He said at the time there was little information on HPV and he did not want anyone to go through his experience.
“I had radiotherapy for 35 days except weekends. I felt extreme burning in my neck and mouth and I was covered in sores. The pain was excruciating,” he explained. “It’s a lengthy recovery time. You have to teach yourself to swallow again and you get a dry mouth all the time.”
His foundation is part of HPV Action – which represents more than 50 groups and charities that are calling for both genders to receive the vaccination on the NHS.
Mr Rae said the current disparity between boys and girls was “appalling”.
“Lots of doctors are having their boys vaccinated because they can afford it, as are those who are better informed,” he said. “But what about those who can’t afford it? Cases of throat cancer are soaring. It’s indefensible.
“Every day that goes past where boys are not being vaccinated condemns them to a whole host of diseases that we could prevent.”
HPV Action says around a dozen countries including Australia, Canada and the US are already vaccinating boys or are planning to do so in the near future.
The government’s vaccination advisory committee is currently reviewing whether boys should receive the HPV vaccination.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Cares says it will carefully consider its advice once they’ve received it.
Campaigners hope there will be a decision this year, possibly as soon as June.
A debate is taking place on Wednesday at Westminster Hall about the issue.
The argument for vaccinating boys against HPV
- About 15% of UK girls eligible for vaccination are currently not receiving both doses, a figure which is much higher in some areas
- Most older women in the UK have not had the HPV vaccination
- Men may have sex with women from other countries with no vaccination programme
- Men who have sex with men are not protected by the girls’ programme
- The cost of treating HPV-related diseases is high – treating anogenital warts alone in the UK is estimated to cost £58m a year, while the additional cost of vaccinating boys has been estimated at about £20m a year
Source: HPV Action
Prof Francis Vaz, a head and neck surgeon at University College London Hospital, paid privately to vaccinate his three sons.
He explained this was because he wanted to protect them from certain cancers like anus, penis, mouth and throat. He said he saw on a daily basis that cancers driven by the HPV virus had been increasing in the past decade.
“I regularly see the bad end of that spectrum, so I thought the vaccination would be suitable for my sons,” he said. “It’s just unfortunate it wasn’t available for them on the NHS. I was happy to pay for it because I think it’s a good vaccine.”
He said he made a conscious decision to spend £450 on three injections per son – you can pay less if you have two vaccines.
“I’m aware that I’m in the know – and that there are people out there that can’t afford it or aren’t aware. It seems unfair.”
He said for those who are concerned about vaccinating their child, it is a decision for parents to make.
“I wouldn’t suggest anyone should force a vaccine on any individual, but if this vaccine was exceptionally dangerous it wouldn’t be distributed to as many people as it is.”
Prof Vaz said he understood there may be many factors explaining why boys were currently not receiving the vaccine, but cost had to be one of them.
The NHS argues only vaccinating girls indirectly protects boys because vaccinated girls will not pass HPV on to them. This is called herd immunity.
However, many doctors argue this does not work because boys may go on to have a male partner, have a female partner who has not had the jab or visit a country where they do not provide HPV vaccinations.
“You hope with herd immunity it’ll work and protect the boys – but that doesn’t work,” he explained. “People can fall through the net, though the net has been cast reasonably wide, it currently doesn’t protect everyone.”
Prof Chris Nutting also vaccinated his two sons, who were aged 13 and 14.
“I specialise in treating throat cancer,” he explained. “Fifty per cent of cancers I treat are caused by viruses which could be vaccinated against. It’s very frustrating.”
Prof Nutting said the main argument against giving boys the jab is cost – extending the scheme will cost £20m.
“The Department of Health should be making a decision. They have put it off for years,” he said.
Peter Baker, of HPV Action, said HPV was as dangerous for boys as girls as it caused a number of different cancers in both sexes.
“There’s no obvious reason why the vaccination is split between the genders. More women get cancer through HPV then men – but the difference isn’t huge,” he said.
The government’s vaccination advisory committee (JCVI) said it was still in the process of considering all the data and will wait until the process has concluded before making any statements. Public Health England also said it would not comment before the decision was made.
Watch the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme on weekdays between 09:00 and 11:00 on BBC Two and the BBC News channel.