Today, Australian teen and pre-teen boys will become the first in the world to receive Gardasil, the cervical cancer vaccine.
Australian boys aged 12-13 will be vaccinated at schools around the country from today. Boys aged 14-15 will also be vaccinated in the coming months as part of a free program.
So, why are boys receiving the cervical cancer vaccine when they don’t actually have a cervix?
Gardasil – commonly called the cervical cancer vaccine – was developed by Australian of the Year, Professor Ian Frazer after years of studying Human Papillomavirus (HPV). The vaccine protects against four strains of HPV including HPV16 and HPV-18, which are responsible for almost three quarters of cervical cancer cases in women and also most of the cases of penile, anal, vulvar and vaginal cancers.
Of course, men can get anal and penile cancers, which are relatively rare but potentially deadly. Men can also pass on the HPV virus to their partners – who can get cervical cancer. HPV is also spread by oral sex and can cause HPV-related tonsil cancers – which happen almost as frequently in men, as the cervical cancers do in women.
These ‘peripheral’ cancers are not always nearly so deadly as cervical cancer (which kills hundreds of thousands of women each year) but they can still cause major health problems and occasionally death.
So – the case to get boys jabbed is pretty clear.
To gain an idea of just how widespread HPV is in men, a recent study found that as many as half the adult men in Brazil, Mexico and the United States carry HPV.
And sure, the male cancers might be rare but in the US there were still 5000 new cases of anal cancer in 2010. So while women get most of the cancer risk – men are still not free from harm when it comes to HPV.
Last year, Federal Minister for Health, Tanya Plibersek said providing the HPV vaccine to boys would protect them and increase the effectiveness of the vaccination program for girls.
“Every parent wants their child to be healthy and that is why the Australian Government is delivering the best protection we have against HPV related cancer through this vaccine,” said Ms Plibersek.
“By building on Australia’s world-class immunisation program, we’re stopping preventable HPV related disease and cancers, and that makes a difference to the quality of life of our families.
“Already the HPV vaccine has had an impact – significantly reducing the number of lesions that lead to cervical cancer amongst women in the vaccinated age group. It is estimated that a quarter of new infections will be avoided by extending the vaccine to boys.”
Further information is available in the fact sheet on the Immunise Australia Program Website.