Since 2008, young teenage girls in the United Kingdom have had access to a free HPV vaccine. This September, over a decade later, the National Health Service (NHS) will be extending the same benefit to teenage boys.
The human papilloma virus (HPV) is the cause of most cervical cancers in women, but this sexually transmitted infection can just as easily infect men. The virus has been linked to five percent of all known cancers, including anal cancer, mouth and throat cancer, and even penile cancer.
In the last decade or so, as cervical cancers have dropped dramatically worldwide, oral cancers have begun to surge upwards, especially among men. In fact, these are now the fastest-increasing cancers in some areas of the world.
So far, several countries - including Australia, Canada, the United States, Norway and Italy - have responded to this increase by vaccinating everyone against cancer-causing HPV, regardless of their sex or sexual orientation.
But in the last few years UK health officials have argued that giving boys a free HPV vaccine is not cost effective, and that if women are vaccinated they inevitably won't pass it on to their male sexual partners.
Critics have been quick to point out that this assumes complete coverage and completely overlooks certain sexual orientations. Last year, as a result, the NHS extended the HPV vaccine program only to those men who have sex with other men - a fairly ridiculous design given that boys are vaccinated at the age of 12 or 13 when they might not know who their future sexual partners will be.
"HPV does not discriminate, it can affect everyone, yet there are still many harmful myths and stigmas surrounding it," said Robert Music, the chief executive of Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, according to The Guardian.
"This is why a universal vaccination programme is so important, as not only will it normalise this very common virus and reduce existing inequalities, it will protect many more people from developing cancer and save lives."
Today, it seems the NHS has at last been convinced. In 2018, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) recommended a 'gender neutral' vaccine programme to the NHS, given the recent rise in oral cancers and systematic reviews that show how effective male vaccination can be.
Public Health England (PHE) even claims that the updated program will prevent more than 100,000 cancers across the UK by 2058, and 50,000 of these would be for non-cervical cancers.
"This universal programme offers us the opportunity to make HPV-related diseases a thing of the past and build on the success of the girls' programme," said Mary Ramsay, the Head of Immunisation at PHE.
"Offering the vaccine to boys will not only protect them but will also prevent more cases of HPV-related cancers in girls and reduce the overall burden of these cancers in both men and women in the future."