Is it too late to be HPV safe?


With news that a cancer-preventing HPV vaccination programme has proved successful among young women, Q&C takes a look at whether or not it’s too late for gay men to get protected.

Last year there was 422,000 diagnoses of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) made in England, according to Public Health England. There were 7,137 diagnoses of syphillis alone, a staggering 148% increase in just ten years.

The British Association of Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) has said genital warts are the most common viral STIs, caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).

HPV is the name for a group of viruses that affect the skin and moister areas of the body such as the anus, mouth and throat. There are many different types of HPV. Some are passed on through skin-to-skin contact, while many are sexually transmitted - spread via oral, anal and vaginal sex.

Usually people with HPV have no symptoms, and while low risk strains can cause conditions such as genital warts, high-risk strains are more serious and can lead to oral cancer, anal cancer and rarer forms of genital cancers. Public Health England recently stated that the virus causes cancer in around 2,000 men each year, and causing around 650 deaths. Men with HPV also risk passing it on to their partners.

Britain has seen a successful vaccination programme for school-girls since 2008 which has resulted in a dramatic drop in the rates of HPV among those who’ve had the jab. Currently delivered through the school system, this has ensured a high uptake of the vaccine thus protecting young women from HPV-related illnesses. It’s now expected to be extended to boys after the government’s Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisation (JCVI) said it's cost effective.

But what about adult men, and gay and bisexual men specifically. Some medical experts have identified HPV leading to a health crisis on a par with the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. So how worried should we be? Is the vaccination even available to gay men? And if so, is it too late to get protected if you are already sexually active - and what age is it definitely too late?

Q&C health expert Dr Mark Pakianathan

Q&C health expert Dr Mark Pakianathan

We asked Q&C’s health columnist Dr Mark Pakianathan whether gay men can get vaccinated, and if so whether we all should be thinking about heading down to our local GUM clinic. He told us that in April this year, the NHS announced that it would vaccinate gay men up to the age of 45, although so far, delays in implementation have occured in many clinics across the country.

Dr Mark Pakianathan said: “Many people have asked me recently when is it too late to get protected from HPV. The fact is that men into their 40s should be seriously thinking about getting vaccinated as it is unlikely they’d have already been infected with all HPV types. While some might have been exposed to certain strains of HPV, the full vaccination could protect them from other perhaps more dangerous strains which could lead to cancer in the future.

“Also, men who are sexually active with new partners may be at risk of re-infection, which the vaccination could protect them against.”

He also highlighted the glaring inequalities faced by gay and bisexual men in accessing healthcare of this kind. He added: “It’s a shame in a country like the UK, gay men continue to experience structural inequalities in health. Worse still, it’s taken over ten years for the approval of these vaccinations when we’ve known for a long time that this population is at higher risk of HPV-related cancers and other illnesses, particularly given the prevalence of factors that drive them such as smoking, alcohol and HIV infection.”

The vaccination process consists of three separate injections over the course of six months, and people will have the choice of different vaccinations protecting you against up to nine sub-types of HPV.

It’s a shame in a country like the UK, gay men continue to experience inequalities in health.. when we’ve known for a long time that this population is at higher risk of HPV-related cancers.

Jamie Rae, founder of both Throat Cancer Foundation and HPV Action - a collaboration of 50 national healthcare charities and sexual health bodies that have lobbied for equality in HPV vaccination - and himself a throat cancer survivor, is pleased the experts have recognised the importance of gender neutral vaccination which could protect up to 400,000 boys per year against HPV and the range of deadly diseases caused by the virus. He also wants to see the government go further and implement the vaccination programme at an earlier age than the current 12-13 years old threshold for girls.

He commented: “Research and findings by some of the most eminent medical healthcare professionals who advise the Throat Cancer Foundation have stated that for the vaccine to be most effective it should be administered to both boys and girls at 10 or 11 years of age, before they get to High School - a point raised by the British Medical Association at recent conference. There is broad agreement that this will offer children protection from throat, anal and penile cancers, as well as genital warts, in later life.”

“Now that the JCVI has had its say, we hope Public Health England recommends a national vaccination programme that is implemented as soon as it is feasibly possible.”

Anyone with concerns about HPV or who want the vaccination should seek advice from their GP or nearest sexual health clinic.