NHS England has announced that it will follow NHS Scotland and Wales by implementing an HPV school vaccination programme for boys aged 12 in school year 8 from September. Girls of that age have been on the school vaccination schedule since 2008. As over 90% of Cervical cancers are caused by HPV, in approximately 40 years, this programme could greatly reduce the incidence of this disease in UK.
The virus is primarily transmitted by genital or occasionally by oral contact. HPV vaccination is therefore given by the NHS to children before their sexual activity begins. Response to the vaccine is better at younger ages since once someone is infected with the virus, the vaccine is much less effective or possibly might not work at all.
As well as causing over 90% of Cervical cancers in women, strains of the virus cause a growing number of Throat, Penile, Vulvar, Vaginal, Anal and Rectal cancers. There are over 200 types of HPV, of which at least 14 are known to cause cancer. Two types, (16 and 18) cause the majority of pre-cancerous lesions of the cervix which leads to Cervical cancer. Genital HPV infections usually clear up on their own but if this becomes chronic, it can cause changes in the cells of the cervix that leads to Cervical cancer unless treated at the earlier pre-cancerous stage.
The roll-out of a gender-neutral schools HPV vaccination programme for children by the NHS could prevent over 64,000 cervical cancers and nearly 50,000 non-cervical cancers by 2058, which will be the 50th anniversary of the start of the school vaccination programme.
Almost all people who are sexually active will contract strains of the virus in their lifetime, which means that most adults are at risk of developing an HPV-related cancer if not vaccinated before exposure to the virus. In the US for example, where only 40% of girls and 20% of boys are vaccinated, some 14 million Americans contract the virus every year and HPV infections are responsible for 31,000 new cancer diagnoses each year according to the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention
A gender-neutral HPV vaccination programme for youngsters was rolled out in Australia in 2013 and the HPV infection rate among women aged 18 to 24 dropped from 22% to 1% in two years.
In the emerging countries of Africa and Asia the cost of HPV vaccination, if available, and current HPV-related cancer treatment renders them unobtainable to the majority of women. Diagnosis of Cervical cancer is therefore likely to be a death sentence.
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