Few Irish adults realise how prevalent HPV infection is or how much of a risk it poses to men, research has found.
Just one in three people questioned knew that men and women are equally susceptible to HPV (human papillomavirus) infection and only one in 10 men knew that they are almost certain to be infected by HPV at some stage in their lives.
Doctors and cancer charities have joined forces to try to increase public awareness about HPV which, in its worst form, is chiefly known for causing cervical cancer in women but can also cause a range of other cancers and medical conditions in both men and women.
“It is critical that people know that HPV infection doesn’t discriminate between males and females,” said Liz Yeates, chief executive of the Marie Keating Foundation.
Ms Yates and other advocates also want to encourage more parents to ensure their children get vaccinated against HPV infection under the free national immunisation programme.
The programme is currently only open to girls in first year in secondary school, as well as to young men who have sex with men and young men and women who are HIV positive, but the Department of Health has ordered an assessment of the viability of extending it to first-year boys too.
Hiqa, the health service standards watchdog, is examining the costs and impact of vaccinating boys and is expected to present its findings to Health Minister Simon Harris by the end of this year.
Mr Harris has said that if Hiqa backs the idea, he will too.
The survey of public knowledge about HPV that has caused concern to health professionals was conducted among 1,000 adults by polling company Behaviour and Attitudes and was commissioned by pharmaceutical company MSD, which manufactures Gardasil, the HPV vaccine used in Ireland.
Ray O’Sullivan, consultant in obstetrics and gynaecology at St Luke’s Hospital, Kilkenny, said HPV infection rates are rising rapidly among both men and women in high-income countries like Ireland.
HPV is very common and almost all sexually active people will contract it at some point in their life, usually in one of its many harmless forms.
However, it caused, on average, 420 cancers in men and women every year between 2010 and 2014, and kills 100 women and 30 men each year, mainly through cervical cancer but also anal cancer.
Cork-based GP Nick Flynn said people need to educate themselves about HPV and he urged them to raise their questions and concerns with a healthcare professional.
Immunisation of first year girls began in 2010 and the uptake hit close to 90% in the first few years but it fell to almost 50% after a campaign by a parents’ group who claims that the vaccine has damaged their daughters’ health.
Rates are rising again following a concerted public awareness campaign to counter the claims, while the recent cervical cancer screening scandal is also expected to have an impact on numbers by reinforcing the terminal nature of an advanced cervical cancer diagnosis.
As well as cervical cancer, HPV can cause cancers of the vagina, vulva, and anus, along with genital warts.
Irish Cancer Society chief executive Averil Power said: “We want to help to increase awareness that almost everyone is at risk of HPV infection and that immunisation can help.”