Five years after the government declared in its cancer plan that HPV vaccine could help prevent cancer in boys, the jab is still only given for free to girls.
It means an estimated 2,400 boys each year are missing out on the potentially life-saving free vaccinations. The human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine can prevent cervical, vaginal, penile and anal cancers as well as genital warts.
Since 2012, girls have been offered the vaccine free of charge upon reaching their 12th birthday. Many countries also offer the jab to boys of a similar age.
Donia Gamoudi, genito-urinary medicine specialist, said the vaccine would help protect boys against strains of virus that cause cancer and warts and would also help achieve herd immunity and, therefore, reduce the spread of HPV.
“International studies have shown that the virus is present in half the male population and the vaccine is recommended for adolescents before they become sexually active,” she said.
“Although it is licensed up to the age of 45, the younger people are when they get vaccinated, the more likely they are to benefit.
“The older one is, the more likely they would have been exposed to various types of HPV, making the vaccine less effective.
“Still, if you get vaccinated in your 20s, 30s or early 40s, it could protect you against strains that you have not yet come in contact with.
“We advise all men and women to get vaccinated against HPV,” Gamoudi added.
The benefits of nationwide vaccination usually begin to emerge five to 10 years after the roll-out of a jab programme.
In Australia, one of the first countries to begin a national roll-out in 2007, there has been a substantial drop in cervical cancer and medical students today rarely see warts outside of textbooks.
In Malta, HPV remains the most common viral sexually transmitted infection.
Malta’s national cancer plan, launched in 2017, states: “HPV vaccine can help prevent boys from getting infected with the types of HPV that can cause cancers of the mouth/throat, penis and anus… HPV vaccination of males is also likely to benefit females by reducing the spread of HPV viruses.”
The plan included the evaluation of the HPV jab programme at the end of its first five years and exploring the impact of expanding it to include male children of the same age group.
Paul Torpiano, a paediatrician with a special interest in paediatric infectious diseases, immunology and vaccines, said by vaccinating men, many women would be indirectly vaccinated as they almost invariably acquire HPV through sexual intercourse with men.
Torpiano noted that, according to international research, more than one in five women are infected within two years of becoming sexually active.
“The HPV immunisation for women on a national level was a great step forward. However, without vaccinating boys we are failing to protect men from HPV-related cancer,” he said.
“We are also arguably discriminating against men in the fight against HPV-related disease and fostering social unfairness in the sense that HPV vaccines are quite expensive.
“So, in all likelihood, families from a poor socio-economic background are the ones who miss out on vaccination, leaving them relatively exposed to HPV-related disease and cancer.”
A full course of vaccination against the virus can cost up to €570.
Questions sent to the Health Ministry more than one week ago remain unanswered.