Vaccinating Boys Against HPV May Reduce Cancer Rates, Research Suggests

Cases of HPV-related head and neck cancers are rising.
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Vaccinating boys against human papillomavirus (HPV) may cut rates of men with cancers related to the virus in the long term, new research suggests.

A two-year study of 235 patients in Scotland with head and neck cancer found HPV in 60% of cases. HPV is a sexually-transmitted infection with some types linked to cancer, particularly cervical cancer in women – and also cancer of the head and neck.

Rates of head and neck cancer have risen in the past 25 years, particularly among men, said Kevin Pollock of Glasgow Caledonian University, co-author of the research which is published in the Royal College of Radiologists’ journal Clinical Oncology. In 1994, there were 100 cases in Scotland, but by 2015 this had more than tripled to 350.

Dr Pollock said: “Some of the reasons for this increase are due to alcohol and smoking, but we think the proportion of HPV-related head and neck cancers are increasing. This might be due to a change in sexual behaviours.”

The findings follow a report in April from Dr Pollock and academics from Strathclyde, Aberdeen and Edinburgh universities, which suggested routine vaccination of schoolgirls in Scotland with HPV has led to a dramatic reduction in cervical disease in later life

Since a UK-wide immunisation scheme for girls aged 12 and 13 was introduced a decade ago, researchers found a reduction of up to 90% of instances of pre-cancerous cells being discovered at smear tests aged 20.

In July 2018, it was announced the HPV vaccine would be extended to boys aged 12 to 13 in England from the 2019-20 school year. The Scottish government also plans to extend its school HPV vaccination programme to cover boys as well as girls – and Dr Pollock welcomed the move.

“Our latest data shows that 78% of people with head and neck cancers were men and that HPV was present in 60% of the cancers. This means the vaccine may reduce some of these cancers in the long term in Scotland,” he said.

“Not only that, but when we looked at the deprivation status of these cases – much like cervical cancer – head and neck cancers are disproportionately experienced by more deprived individuals.

“We know that smoking and alcohol consumption are linked to these cancers and policies are in place to try and reduce this consumption, but the great thing about a vaccine given to young boys is that if you give it early enough, and see a high uptake across all the deprived areas, you are reducing the inequality.”

Throat Cancer Foundation chief executive Jamie Rae welcomed the findings. The Falkirk businessman, who set up the charity after his diagnosis with oropharyngeal cancer caused by HPV, said: “What Dr Kevin Pollock’s research highlights is both the importance and opportunity to end the destructive impacts HPV has on head and neck cancers.

“We welcome the findings in this research and recognise that it is going to be a useful tool to help educate the general public as to why a nationwide HPV vaccination programme will benefit and protect children’s health in future years.”