Yesterday, a short-sighted and shameful recommendation was made not to give teenage boys the potentially life-saving Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine.
We should all be angry about this. I certainly am. It's a health inequality which leaves people unprotected from serious health conditions, including cancers, purely on the basis of their sex. And while this advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JVCI) is 'interim', it's a very worrying sign.
Four out of five people will contract the HPV at some point in their life. It's an infection that is passed on through skin-to-skin contact, usually during sex. Whilst the majority of people will naturally clear the infection and never know they have been infected, it's estimated around 10 per cent of cases can lead to serious health conditions.
HPV is the cause of 90 per cent of anal cancers. It can also cause head, mouth, throat, cervical, penile and anal cancers, as well as genital warts.
To help prevent HPV here in the UK, a vaccine is administered to girls by the NHS before they become sexually active. All girls aged 12 and 13 are offered the vaccine at school, with the main aim of reducing the incidence of cervical cancer, caused by high-risk strains of HPV, and other related conditions.
It's known as 'herd protection', whereby boys are indirectly protected when girls are vaccinated. And the JVCI report yesterday reinforced this saying, 'most of the benefit in boys can be achieved through achieving high uptake in a girls-only vaccination programme.'
But this is narrow-minded and simply wrong.
It presumes all boys have sex with girls, which they don't, and that all these boys have sex with girls from the UK who have had the vaccine. Again, they don't. By not vaccinating boys we are leaving men, mainly gay men, at risk of preventable cancers. And it's costing lives.
With the latest set of STI data released earlier this month, we saw a noticeable gender inequality in genital warts rates, with rates declining faster amongst girls than boys - this clearly shows the need for equal access to the life-saving HPV vaccine.
No one should face inequality due to their gender, sexual orientation or choice of sexual partner. However, clear inequalities still exist when it comes to HPV and a large proportion of the population remain at risk.
There is currently a small scale NHS pilot to vaccinate men who have sex with men up to the age of 45 at sexual health clinics. Although a welcome step which will protect some people, this doesn't provide the coverage needed - it's administered after they've become sexually active and it requires attendance at a clinic which isn't always practical or accessible. For the vaccine to be most effective, people need to get it before they are sexually active, which is why girls are currently given it aged 12 and 13.
Rates of anal cancer are rising among men, specifically gay and bi sexual men. In fact, as HPV Action have stated, who have been at the forefront of the campaign to vaccinate boys alongside Terrence Higgins Trust and others, the incidence of anal cancer in gay and bi sexual men is estimated to be similar to that of cervical cancer in an unscreened population of women.
Parents are now taking action to protect their sons' health. We're seeing an increasing trend for parents to vaccinate their sons privately at high street chemists. Parents are paying to protect their children from cancers because the NHS isn't. But this only adds to the existing inequality. There are many parents that don't know about the vaccine or simply cannot afford it privately.
We must, as a matter of urgency, prioritise a gender-neutral vaccination programme to protect all our children.
Before a final decision is taken on whether boys should receive the HPV vaccine as well as girls, we strongly urge the government to listen to the campaigners, experts, charities, parents and young people who have campaigned so passionately for equal access to the vaccine, and to do the right thing.
As a progressive society, we should be protecting all young people, regardless of their sex, from preventable cancers. Anything less than equal access to the HPV vaccine is shameful, and the consequences for this young generation of boys could be heart-breaking.Suggest a correction