According to Timo Vesikari, vaccinating boys against the HPV virus would protect them against cancer and stop the infection from spreading
Professor Timo Vesikari, Director of the Vaccine Research Center at the University of Tampere in Finland, recommends that boys should also be immunised against the human papillomavirus (HPV). Vesikari wrote about the issue in a recent blog post.
“So far, the Finnish vaccination campaign has been targeted at girls, but I think that is unfair because boys can also be affected by the virus,” Vesikari says.
In 2013, a vaccine against HPV was introduced in the National Immunization Programme of Finland. 11-12-year-old-girls are currently offered the vaccine free of charge. At present, about 70 per cent of girls in this age group are immunised. The vaccine efficiently prevents especially cervical cancer and precancerous lesions.
The vaccine works best if it is administered before people begin their sex lives. According to the National Institute for Health and Welfare, the vaccine is of little use for people over the age of 30 as most HPV infections have already occurred at that age.
The Vaccine Research Center is currently conducting a study in which women aged 16-45 years are vaccinated against nine types of HPV. “Vaccinating young girls is definitely a good thing. However, infections also occur in adults so there would be a reason to extend the vaccinations to older women,” Vesikari says.
HPV also causes cancer in men. The virus has been found to cause ano-genital and oro-pharyngeal cancers.
“I have three points to support my argument for administering the vaccine to boys. The first is to prevent the disease from spreading. If boys were also immunised, it would eliminate the HPV included in the vaccine from circulation. My second justification is to protect boys against the cancers caused by HPV. My third argument is gender equality. I find it unfair that only girls are protected against the virus,” Vesikari explains.
The association of HPV with other cancers is not as obvious as with cervical cancer, but still significant.
“Altogether, men’s cancers that are associated with HPV cause at least half of the burden of disease caused by cervical cancer. However, the National Institute for Health and Welfare outlined that the aim was to prevent cervical cancer only.
Vaccinating boys would also increase the costs of the National Immunization Programme. According to Vesikari, the investment would pay off.
“The costs would naturally increase. However, there is only a small difference between the price of the currently used vaccine against two types of HPV and the one containing four types. In addition, the same company is developing a vaccine against nine HPV types and it will eventually replace the currently available vaccine against four types,” Vesikari says.
The vaccination used in Finland is effective against two types of HPV, 16 and 18, which cause an estimated 70 per cent of all cervical cancers. The new nine-valent vaccine will increase protection to 90 per cent.
The present understanding is that the protection provided by the vaccine lasts for at least a decade and possibly longer.
According to Vesikari, the nine-valent vaccine would raise the immunisation coverage to about 90 per cent.
“A vaccine against four types of HPV would also prevent genital warts. Genital warts do not cause cancer but they are hard to treat and very common,” Vesikari points out.
He hopes that people would stop talking about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
“I think we should stop talking about STDs and protection against them in connection with the HPV vaccine. The vaccine should just be like one of the many other vaccines regularly administered to both boys and girls,” Vesikari adds.
Text: Jaakko Kinnunen