Recent evidence shows the human papilloma virus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer in women, is poised to become one of the leading causes of oral cancer in men because of changing sexual behaviours.
The findings have reignited the debate over whether boys should be given the cervical cancer vaccine, Gardasil.
A visiting British virologist, Professor Margaret Stanley, says governments around the world need to examine the long-term economic and health benefits of immunising boys and young men.
The head of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital, Professor Suzanne Garland, says Australia is leading the way in the rollout of the cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil, which immunises against HPV.
“We are in our third year of rolling out the vaccine and we are in the order in the school-based group, in the high 70s, whereas in many other countries, they have only got 30 per cent who have been vaccinated,” she said.
But now the vaccination debate has switched genders.
There are growing calls from the medical community for boys and young men to also be vaccinated against HPV.
Advocates include one of Britain’s top cervical cancer specialists, Professor Margaret Stanley from Cambridge University, who says a cervical cancer jab in the arms of boys would not just be for the sake of girls.
“These HPVs don’t just cause cancer in women. They cause it in men as well. Cancer in the mouth, cancer in the anus and those cancers are very hard to treat,” she said.
“As an anti-cancer prevention strategy, I would have thought immunising boys was a sensible way to go.”
Professor Stanley is visiting Melbourne as the guest speaker at a cervical cancer conference at the Royal Women’s Hospital.
She says the rate of oral cancers linked to HPV is rising, and it is strongly associated with an increase in the practice of oral sex.
“There are some caused by alcohol and tobacco use and they are declining, but there is no doubt that the cancer caused by HPV are on an upward trajectory,” she said.
Professor Suzanne Garland says there would be other benefits to vaccinating men against HPV.
“I think it would also help destigmatise this just being a female disease,” she said.
The benefits exist, but critics say they do not outweigh the cost of a government-funded vaccination program for boys and young men.
However Professor Stanley rejects that categorically.
“The cost-effective modelling that is being done at the minute has actually not taken into account these other cancers,” she said.
“It has really only looked at ‘if we immunise boys, what effect will we have on cervix cancer’ and I think they need to go back to their models and say ‘if we immunise boys, what effect will have on these other cancers and what value for money will that be’.”