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Letter to The Guardian: 'Women can be protected from cervical cancer so why aren't we doing it'

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing in response to yesterday’s piece ‘Women can be protected from cervical cancer – so why aren’t we doing it’.

The key messages that we are losing sight of here is that the HPV-related disease burden goes beyond just cervical cancer. And it is not just limited to girls. By restricting the narrative around HPV to only cervical disease we are missing out on a huge opportunity to prevent thousands of cases of cancer.

80% of us will have an HPV infection at some stage in our lives. Both men and women. And whilst in the vast majority of cases our bodies will simply clear the virus without us suffering any ill effects, for those unfortunate it can develop into some serious diseases.

HPV is the causal agent of 5% of cancer. Alongside cervical cancer, HPV causes anal, penile, vaginal, vulvar and head & neck cancers. These cancers affect both men and women.

Of the cancers caused by HPV, 5 out of the 6 cancers do not have routine screening guidelines. This means that the disease can only be caught if the patient is symptomatic, or lucky. Beyond that the treatment protocols for HPV-related diseases have not progressed in decades. Many anal cancer patients for example are still exposed to the same chemo-radiation cocktail which was first given to patients in the 1970s.

The cases of these cancers are also increasing. HPV-related oral cancers are the fastest rising group of cancers in men in the developed world – in the USA, rates of HPV-related oral cancers in men have overtaken rates of cervical cancer in women.

To compound these issues, knowledge around HPV and the diseases it causes is poor. In a European survey among countries where HPV vaccination was recommended, less than 50% of respondents were aware that HPV caused cancer. In the UK, just 28% of people were aware that HPV can cause cancer in men.

In September 2019, boys in the UK were introduced to the HPV vaccination programme in order to protect them against HPV-related cancers. To interrupt or suspend their access to this immunisation would be poor public health practice. Doing so presents an unclear message to parents of who needs the vaccine, and we risk undoing the good work of our nurses, our doctors and other health professionals in spreading the word of the importance of this immunisation for boys and girls in order to protect against cancer. Additionally, there are those who will then miss out on doses through such a suspension, and therefore not gain the benefit of completing the course of vaccinations, not to mention the logistical and programmatic costs which have been put in place to deliver these systems which would then need revising.

Next Wednesday, 4th March we celebrate International HPV Awareness Day, an opportunity to increase worldwide understanding of HPV and how it affects us all. It is time for men to stand side-by-side with women, to learn about HPV and the risk of HPV-related cancers, and to protect our loved ones, both female and male against this devastating virus.

The HPV vaccine is the greatest opportunity we’ve had to protect against cancer in decades. We should be doing everything we can to ensure immunisation programmes are as effective as possible.


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