Since 2008, girls in the United Kingdom have been offered the vaccine against human papilloma virus at the ages of 12 to 13. The programme has been targeted towards women for a number of reasons, primarily that the greatest single health risk caused by the virus is cervical cancer (and indeed over 99% of cervical cancers are thought to be caused by the virus). In this respect the policy can be hailed as a success – incidence of the cancer-causing strains of HPV amongst girls aged 14 to 19 has been reduced from 7.2% in 2006 to 3.6% in 2010.
However, another underlying theory behind the gender-specific nature of the vaccination programme is that it offers herd immunity. If all women are immune to the virus then there will be no scope for it to be transmitted from man to woman, causing it to gradually die out. This would be a wonderfully simple and cost-effective approach, if only all men had sex exclusively with women.
Unfortunately (at least from the point of view of public health policy makers) this is not the case. And whilst perhaps for most men cervical cancer is not a personal health risk, it is far from the only condition caused by HPV. Cancers of the mouth, anus, and penis are all associated with various strains of the virus, as well as genital warts and more prosaic warts and verrucas of the skin.
Moreover, whilst it may be the case that most people infected with HPV never develop symptoms, it is also true that those with suppressed or compromised immune systems are more at risk of developing the diseases associated with HPV. With AIDS being a condition disproportionately men who have sex with men it seems ridiculous that an obviously vulnerable group is being offered no protection. And the fact that there exists no straightforward means of testing men for HPV – the only widely available means of testing is the cervical pap test – only makes the issue more concerning.
The recent rise in cases of oral cancer – from 4,400 in 2006 to 6,200 cases in 2012, according to Cancer Research UK, and with two-thirds of cases affecting men – highlights the pressing nature of the issue, whilst Michael Douglas’s attribution of his throat cancer to oral sex last year has served to alert the public that it is not exclusively women who are put at risk by HPV. Although the current vaccination programme may be a cost-effective method of providing protection to a majority of the population, it does very little to help the MSM community. Recent calls from organisations such as the Royal Society for Public Health to routinely vaccinate boys against HPV – a policy that would be in line with countries such as Australia and the USA – draw attention to this fact in their emphasis on extending vaccinations to adult gay and bisexual men as well.
The current policy on the HPV vaccine utterly disregards the welfare of large sections of the queer community. Whilst it is right that the policy should be focussed on women since its they who bear the brunt of HPV-induced cancers, it is still the case that men – and disproportionately men who have sex with men – suffer from such cancers at a rate over 40% that of women, based on figures gathered in the USA between 2004 and 2008. With this being the case, you begin to wonder how justified the current vaccination policy is.
Eddie Angel studies Modern and Medieval Languages at the University of Cambridge and is our Social Media Manager and Junior Treasurer at, “Get Real.” He is also the Cambridge University Student Union’s LGBT+ Communications Officer and is Emmanuel College LGBT+ representative