Men who have sex with men (MSMs) up to the age of 45 will finally have the chance to receive the HPV vaccine at GUM and HIV clinics.
Since 2008, all girls aged 12-13 have been offered a vaccine against the Human Papilloma virus (HPV). This family of over 100 different viruses are classified as either low risk or high risk.
Some low-risk types of HPV can cause warts and verrucas, including genital warts. Some high-risk types can cause cervical or anal cancer. So why until now was the vaccine only offered to girls? Because it was assumed the men would be protected by ‘herd immunity’. Which would be true. For men who only have sex with women. Gay men weren’t considered, or if we were, our risk at developing anal cancer wasn’t worth the money it would cost to vaccinate us. I was one sufferer of this inequality.
In 2008, I was in Year 8. The girls in my year were the first to receive these vaccines. At the time I thought nothing of it, as the only thing we were told was it would prevent these girls from getting cervical cancer. Four years later, however, I discovered that I had Anal Intraepithelial Neoplasia III, a type of anal cancer caused by HPV. Seven operations and countless scans and biopsies later, I was all clear. Luckily no cancerous cells had spread from the affected area and I required no further treatment, but I was only so lucky because the diseased tissue was discovered early, during a routine operation on an abscess. If I hadn’t had that abscess, the cancer may not have been found until it had spread elsewhere, and it would have been a different story. For many other gay men, it was.
Every year in the UK 2000 men are diagnosed with cancers caused by HPV. Unlike HIV, a weak virus that cant exist outside of the body, HPV is a tough infectious virus requiring no more than skin to skin contact to transmit. Condoms are not enough. There is no cure for HPV, but there is a prevention.
For years other countries, such as America, Canada, Australia and Austria have vaccinated both boys and girls from early adolescence. So why are we in the UK only just giving it to men? Dr Max Pemberton went so far as to say;
“Not giving boys the HPV vaccine is institutional homophobia. The government is letting gay and bisexual men die of cancer”
“It makes absolutely no sense – we’ve got a vaccine that we know works, yet as a cost-cutting exercise the government is ignoring a whole cohort of people because they are just assuming that everybody is having sex with women, and if you’re not, then you are not protected at all.
“The virus is very infectious – even using condoms doesn’t protect you against it as it can enter from the base of the penis. Unless you have a condom that covers every part of the person you can still catch it.
“About 1,500 cases of anal cancer a year are directly related to HPV infection. The cost of that is estimated at between £70 million and £90 million. Whereas the cost to roll out the HPV vaccine would be £20 million. The government just thinks about saving money in the next budget. It’s disgraceful.
“Having anal sex is the unacceptable face of being gay. Everyone likes the idea that we just sit around in fabulously designed houses with matching slippers. But when it comes down to a bit of buggery, the government thinks, ‘Let’s not talk about that, that’s not a vote-winner, let’s not even think about it.’ That’s what it comes down to.”
Though all MSMs will now be able to receive the vaccine, for many, it was too little, too late.