Boys should be vaccinated against the HPV virus as well as girls to protect them against several types of cancer, several leading clinicians say.

Dr Gillian Prue, lecturer in chronic illnesses at Queen’s University Belfast, wrote in the BMJ: “The current girls-only vaccination programme leaves men who have sex with men (MSM) at particular risk of infection because they do not benefit from any herd protection.

“Indeed, a programme targeted at MSM in the UK may be the most effective; its benefit may be limited, however, because many MSM acquire HPV as teenagers and may have been exposed to HPV already.”

A vaccination programme against the human papillomavirus (HPV) began in 2008 in the UK, but only among girls, on the grounds that this would curb the spread of the infection to boys as well.

Heterosexual men gain protection from the virus through herd immunity if women are vaccinated, but no such protection is afforded to gay and bisexual men.

Dr Prue said: “HPV-related disease in men causes a considerable burden; therefore, vaccinating boys is likely to produce more health and economic benefits than those from a girls-only programme.”

HPV is known to spread through genital or oral contact.

It can cause cervical, penile, anal and throat cancers, as well as genital and anal warts.

Last November, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation agreed to set up a working group on possibly offering HPV vaccinations to adolescent boys and gay and bisexual men.

The committee has yet to conclude its report.

Conservative MP Mike Freer had previously challenged the government to address the issue, saying it was neglecting the sexual health needs of gay men.

HPV Action said in February that vaccinating 367,000 boys aged 12 each year would cost an estimated £24m.

Dr Prue noted that the cost of treating HPV-related illnesses in Italy is around £420m.

She warned: “Ultimately, any decision about whether to vaccinate boys should not be based solely on cost effectiveness.

“Public health, equity, and the human costs of HPV related disease for both sexes must be the main considerations.”

In an accompanying editorial, professor Margaret Stanley, from the department of pathology at the University of Cambridge, Dr Colm O’Mahony, a consultant in sexual health and HIV at the Countess of Chester NHS Foundation Trust, and Dr Simon Barton, clinical director of HIV/genitourinary medicine at Chelsea and Westminster NHS Foundation Trust, highlight the “inequality” of only vaccinating girls against the virus.

They wrote: “The only sensible answer … is a gender neutral vaccination strategy in schools that gives two doses of the vaccine to all 12 to 13-year-old boys and girls.

“Anything else is discriminatory, inequitable, less effective, and difficult to explain. Can the UK afford to do it? If the price is right, we can’t afford not to.”

In the August edition of GT (Gay Times), PinkNews publisher Benjamin Cohen discusses extending the HPV vaccine.