Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a common infection.
The main transmission routes are: skin to skin contact of genitals, vaginal, oral and anal sex, as well as sharing sex toys. There are more than 100 strains of HPV – a number of these cause genital infections and over 10 have been linked to cancer.
If infected with a strain associated with genital infections, some people may only develop genital warts, whilst others may be completely asymptomatic. However, a minority may, in the long term, develop cancers. It is worth noting that the current HPV vaccine protects against four of the main genital and cancer-causing strains of HPV.
HPV has significant consequences for boys and men in Britain, and is responsible, per annum, for approximately 1400 neck cancers, 350 penile cancers and nearly 400 anal cancers.
Girls have been offered the HPV vaccine in UK schools since 2008. This takes place in Year 9 (13-14 years). Women are more at risk of developing cancers and other illnesses as a consequence of HPV than men – with HPV as the main source of cervical caners in the UK.
Vaccinating adolescent girls has been a success story, already impacting cervical cancer rates. A European-UK study found, amongst women aged 20-24, a 66% fall in HPV cases, a 54% fall in genital warts and a 31% decrease in pre-cancerous growths.
Adolescent boys, as of last year, can now also access the HPV vaccine via a schools based programme (Year 9, 13-14 years). The vaccine is at its most effective before any sexual contact has taken place, which is why it has mainly been targeted at teenagers.
It would be a huge achievement if we could replicate some of the reduced cancer rates seen in women for gay and bisexual men (MSM). As with many STIs, MSM are known to be more at risk of HPV than the rest of the male population.
As there is such a high prevalence of HPV in the general population, Public Health England decided not to give the vaccinations to MSM over 45, as in all likelihood they would already have been exposed.
However, I’ve been informed by healthcare professionals that if you are MSM and over 45, if you ask, you will probably be able to access the vaccinations. You can request the course of HPV vaccinations from your local STI clinic or GP. If HIV positive, consult your specialist.
Although I have been campaigning for years about HIV and hepatitis C, I actually knew very little about HPV. Naturally I was pleased when I found out that the vaccinations were going to be rolled out for boys in schools, but was unaware that, at 34, I was still young enough to have the vaccination myself.
As someone who is HIV positive, I have become increasingly aware that I am vulnerable to developing co-morbidities in later life. I was excited to learn that I could reduce that risk by having the course of HPV vaccinations.
The HPV vaccinations are delivered in a series of three injections, ideally at three-month intervals, but all at least within the same year to provide lasting protection. I had my first one last week and am due back at the clinic in May and then August for the second and third. The first vaccination was quick and painless.
Finally, if you are asking your healthcare specialist about vaccinations, why not also enquire about hepatitis A and B vaccinations? I had these as a teenager. It may be possible to have some of these vaccinations in tandem with the HPV vaccinations, therefore limiting the amount of time you spend in the clinic.
If you would like to learn more about HPV, I recommend checking out the Terrence Higgins Trust website.