The State’s health watchdog is assessing whether boys should be vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV), a highly contagious virus spread through sexual contact.

Ireland has a nationally funded, school-based girls-only HPV immunisation programme that started in 2010.

HPV is the virus that causes cervical cancer in woman. But it has also been shown to be associated with anal, genital and throat cancer in both males and females.

It is also linked to penile cancer in men and with the development of genital warts in both men and women.

The Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) will establish the clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of extending the national immunisation schedule to include HPV vaccination of boys.

Hiqa will undertake the health technology assessment supported by an expert advisory group that it is currently forming.

The evaluation was requested by Health Minister Simon Harris. The final results are expected in the autumn next year and will be submitted to the minister for his consideration.

Hiqa’s deputy chief executive and director of health technology assessment, Dr Máirín Ryan, said the HPV vaccine had been shown to be safe and it is highly effective in preventing cervical cancer in women.

“HPV infection is the most commonly acquired sexually transmitted viral infection. In most cases, it causes no symptoms and is cleared by the body’s immune system. However, persistent infection can lead to the development of cancer,” said Dr Ryan.

The Irish Cancer Society is concerned that the uptake of the vaccine among first-year secondary school girls dropped from 87% to 50% over a two-year period and, if says if it is not reversed, women will continue to die needlessly from HPV-caused cancers.

It also believes it is time for the Government to extend the HPV school vaccination to boys so that as many lives as possible can be saved. While 335 women are diagnosed with cancers caused by HPV each year, 85 men in Ireland also develop cancer that can potentially be prevented by a simple and safe vaccination.

The Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) is questioning the need for an assessment at all, given that medical evidence proves the vaccination is highly effective.

IMO president Dr Ann Hogan said there was a need for a highly effective communications strategy to inform parents of the medical facts around the success and effectiveness of the vaccine. Children needed to be educated about how to reduce the risk of contracting HPV, she said.

“There has been a steady erosion of confidence in and uptake of the vaccine based on irresponsible scaremongering and if uptake continues to decline it will have serious consequences for all our young people,” said Dr Hogan.


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