The government has confirmed that gay men will be offered HPV vaccines in England for the first time – after they were left vulnerable by a heterosexual-focussed approach.
A vaccination programme began in 2008 among school-age girls in the UK to tackle the human papilloma virus, which spreads through genital or oral contact and can cause cancers.
Only girls were vaccinated on the grounds that men who only have sex with women would logically also be protected from transmission through ‘herd immunity’.
However, an obvious logical flaw in the ‘herd immunity’ plan left gay men vulnerable: as they have sex with eachother and not women, they were effectively left without any protection from HPV.
Public Health Minister Jane Ellison has announced today that the vaccine will be available to gay men in England as part of a pilot scheme.
Up to 40,000 gay and bisexual men attending genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics will be offered the HPV vaccine under the pilot scheme, which starts in June 2016.
It comes after the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation advised that the three dose vaccine should be offered through GUM and HIV clinics to gay and bisexual men who are at high risk of contracting the virus, provided that the service can be delivered at a cost effective price.
Public Health Minister Jane Ellison said: “We want to make sure that those most at risk are protected from potentially deadly cancers and genital warts and piloting this new programme is a step in the right direction.
“This pilot builds on the success of the current vaccination programme.”
Minister for Women and Equalities Nicky Morgan, said: “This Government is determined to ensure we address the specific health needs of LGBT people.
“Giving more people deemed at highest risk access to the vaccine will have a real impact on preventing the spread of HPV.
“The results of the vaccine roll out among girls has been extremely positive and so I’m delighted that we will now see a pilot roll out of the vaccine to gay and bisexual men.”
However, campaigners have previously called for an even wider rollout, vaccinating school-age boys to ensure early protection for all men.
Dr Shaun Griffin, Executive Director of External Affairs, Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “There is no doubt that men who have sex with men (MSM) are at high risk of HPV which, if left untreated, can cause head, neck, penile and anal cancers.
“But the announcement of this pilot feels like a cynical stalling tactic.
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“Back in November, the government said that all MSM up to the age of 45 would be able to access the HPV vaccine across the country – now, six months later, we are disappointed to see this has been scaled down to a small-scale and unnecessary pilot.
“We know there is a clinic in North West London which already give HPV vaccinations to MSM, with fantastic take-up and results, so there is simply no need for another pilot – the evidence is already there.
“More test sites will only delay implementation of a full national programme where all men who have sex with men are given this life-saving vaccine which could prevent them from getting cancer.
“Vaccinating all MSM against HPV would be a vital step, but to be most effective, the HPV vaccine must be made available widely to all boys before they are sexually active. Currently girls receive the vaccine in schools.”
Tory MP for Finchley and Golders Green Mike Freer, who has campaigned to extend the HPV vaccine to boys, said of the announcement: he said: “I welcome the Minister’s announcement today, which marks a significant step in the Department of Health’s recognition that the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) can impact men just as much as it can women. I applaud the efforts Ms Ellison has made which have led us to this point. Without a public health champion like her in the Department, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
“Until now, the HPV vaccination programme has discriminated against men who have sex with men (MSM). This announcement changes that and addresses the limitations of having a vaccination programme focused solely on reducing cervical and vaginal cancer rates in women.
“The health risks faced by MSM are statistically greater than in men generally. Therefore I am pleased, further to the recommendations made by the JCVI last year, the DoH are now taking the action needed to reduce STIs in MSM, by extending the HPV vaccination programme.”
The MP added: “By announcing the expansion of the HPV vaccination programme the DoH has committed to putting in place a robust HPV prevention policy that can save both lives and money.”
The Welsh government had made a similar announcement last year.