Skip to main content

HPV Vaccination for Boys

Volume 640: debated on Wednesday 2 May 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the case for HPV vaccination for boys.

I am delighted to find you in the Chair, Sir Henry. Before I start the substance of my speech, I want to place on the record my appreciation for the help I have received from a number of people, most notably Professor Christopher Nutting, one of the country’s most eminent oncologists specialising in throat and thyroid cancers, and Peter Baker, the campaign director for HPV Action. I am grateful to them both for educating me. I am also indebted to Stephen Bergman and Jamie Rae, two sufferers from the condition we are going to discuss—I shall say more about them later. Finally, I place on record my appreciation of the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer). The Minister will understand that he cannot be here this morning; he has Government duties and a vow of Trappist silence as a Government Whip.

My hon. Friend the Minister indicates that he knows the problem only too well. My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green has done a significant amount of work in achieving the provision of human papillomavirus vaccine for gay men—a small but significant step in the direction in which I hope we may travel further this morning.

Until a relatively few weeks ago, I knew very little about this issue. I concede that entirely. Unlike one of my colleagues who was here in this Chamber yesterday morning while I was in the Chair listening to the debate, who had a relative who had died of bowel cancer, I have no personal experience. However, when I met Professor Nutting and Peter Baker, I was astonished at the speed with which they convinced me of the argument—and I am not a pushover when it comes to spending taxpayers’ money. I think it is a no-brainer, and I hope to persuade my hon. Friend the Minister, and others, on this cause.

The human papillomavirus causes, among other things, cervical cancer, throat cancer, anal and penile cancers, and cancer of the back of the tongue. The virus is carried by about 80% of the population, which means somebody in this room is a carrier; it is not uncommon. I would like everybody to take that on board. Go on the tube in the morning and there will be dozens of people carrying the virus—most of it dormant, and a lot of it non-malignant. It is contracted in sexually active youth and, for men, usually in their teens or 20s.

The point is that it is a slow-burn issue. Its effects are not experienced overnight. A condition contracted as a teenager or at university may not rear its head for 30 years. We are talking about men now in their 50s and 60s, who some of the eminent people sitting behind me in the Public Gallery are treating, waiting that length of time without realising that they have anything wrong with them at all, because there is no screening process for men, unlike the screening process for cervical cancer.

I spoke yesterday to two people, Jamie Rae and Stephen Bergman—both sufferers, and both in their mid-50s—who described their experiences to me. I will not go into too much of the gory detail. I heard again this morning of another experience: somebody’s colleague, himself an eminent surgeon, who had throat cancer and suffered many months out of work, which was a loss to the health service, damage to his family and, of course, the treatment. The treatment involves chemotherapy and radiotherapy; it may involve a tracheostomy; and it inevitably damages the saliva glands in the mouth, leaving the patient who survives with permanent dryness, considerable pain and ongoing discomfort. As I have indicated, there is also the social damage. Both Jamie Rae and Stephen Bergman described to me in graphic detail the processes they have been through and the discomfort—I use that word very modestly indeed—they have experienced. They described themselves as the lucky ones, because both those gentlemen have come through it relatively unharmed, but of course there are many others who do not.

The HPV vaccine has been available to adolescent girls since 2008. A pubescent girl of 12 or 13 is offered the opportunity to be vaccinated in school. The parents, quite properly, have a right to refuse that vaccine. Just in case anybody has any doubt, I am aware that there are a small number of cases where parents believe that things have gone wrong and that children have suffered as a result of the vaccination. That is medically unproven, but we have to recognise that the parents believe it. Parental choice is vital, and in the case of pubescent girls there is parental choice.

The process ties in directly with the Department of Health and Social Care’s cancer strategy, which of course is about prevention. The Department has done significant work on preventing or seeking to prevent other prominent cancers. Lung cancer is the obvious one, and the anti-smoking campaign is highly relevant in this context. Melanoma is another; something that people of a certain age, such as myself, probably did not bother with at all has suddenly become prominent as the realisation of the damage that the sun’s rays can do to the skin and the cancers that can arise from that has dawned on the population. Any responsible parent or grandparent now takes the trouble to ensure that their children have appropriate sunscreens at all times when enjoying the sun. HPV vaccine falls directly into that category. It is usable for prevention and, used properly, it works. That is proven. As I said, this has been available to adolescent girls since 2008.

We now come to the hard bit of the argument, because up until now I think everybody would probably agree that we are on a winner in using HPV vaccine, but of course there is the question of cost and efficacy. The argument has been deployed that herd immunity, to use the colloquial phrase, will mean it is not necessary to vaccinate boys, because if we eliminate the infection in girls, boys will not catch it from the girls. That is nice in theory, but wrong in practice.

I am told by those who know better than I do that the average young male has at least 10 sexual partners. The Minister might find that surprising; I did myself, but it is so. It depends whom we believe, but in the United Kingdom the vaccine has an uptake of between 70% and 83%, although in some parts of the country it is as low as 50%. A young man embarking on an exciting night out with his girlfriend therefore has a very high risk of contracting HPV from a girl who has not been vaccinated, and that is just in the UK. We overlay on that the foreign travel that many young people are now happily able to enjoy. Sometimes, with sun, sea and sand goes sex, and the risk of exposure to HPV in those circumstances can be even greater. Therefore, the idea that herd immunity will in time address the problem is fallacious, and this is where I have to accuse those who are responsible for taking the decisions—that is not the Minister—of short-termism.

I can see the attraction of the argument that extending vaccination would not be cost-effective and that herd immunity is coming downstream. Yes, the cases coming through now are historical, in the sense that the disease was contracted 20 or 30 years ago, so well before any immunisation. If we want to save money and damage health at the same time, that is quite a good way of going about it. I am seeking to persuade the Minister of the real value of having the courage—he is not lacking in courage—to take a long-term decision now.

The cost of immunising every adolescent boy within the relevant range in the UK is estimated to be, at the top end—this includes the purchase of the vaccine, which of course has to be negotiated by the health service, and its application—about £22 million a year. That is a lot of money, but in health service terms it is almost a bagatelle. Set against that, I am told by those with real experience, some of whom are sitting behind me in the Public Gallery, that there are about 2,000 patients a year—men in their 50s and 60s—who have developed throat, penile or anal cancers. The cost of treating those is about £21 million a year. Of course, that takes no account of the social costs and the other damage that can be done. In the case described to me this morning, of a surgeon who was taken out of play for a considerable time, the cost of treatment—of a replacement jaw, as well as the chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hospitalisation and everything else that goes with it—is looking like being somewhere between £50,000 and £100,000, and that is just one case.

My hon. Friend mentions the 2,000 people. Does he have an estimate of the total number of people who might be spared the effects of the virus if the actions that he proposes are taken?

I am afraid that I do not. The figure that I have is 2,000 people a year, so one has to assume that it is that—but it is growing.

The reason the condition is becoming more prominent, not less, is the change in sexual attitudes from the 1960s onwards, when practices that were previously unacceptable became acceptable. Oral sex, for example, became relatively commonplace. We can therefore expect, certainly within the next 10, 15 or 20 years, a significant rise in the number of cases. The discussion has to be about what happens after that and whether the herd immunity actually works. I am arguing that it will not, for the reasons I have given.

I have talked about the slow burn, the 20 or 30-year wait, and the costs to the health service, on which the view seems to be, “Okay, fine. Let’s kick that into the long grass. It’s not our problem.” There will be 15 Ministers between the present one, sadly, and the time when people are developing diseases. However, the condition of genital warts, which is also caused by HPV, takes only three, four or five years to incubate, and the cost of that annually is £50 million, so do the maths. The economics of this are unassailable, and on those grounds I defy anyone to challenge my argument. The argument comes down to herd immunity. Will vaccinating girls do the job or not? I have made it clear that I believe it will not, and I think that the time has come for the Department to take a further long, hard look at the issue.

Up to now, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has indubitably taken a short-term approach to this: “Does it work? Well, yes, the vaccine works. Is it worth it? Well, not if we are vaccinating girls. Let’s see what happens—kick it down the line and save £20 million a year today,” even if that means that in 10, 15 or 20 years’ time we will be spending not £20 million but £200 million a year, which will be in addition to all the social costs. I understand that the JCVI will meet in the first week of June. We were promised that a decision on extending vaccination would be taken in 2015. That was deferred until 2017 and has now been deferred without a date being set for the final result.

Before I conclude with a request to the Minister, I want to say this. Chris Curtis, chairman of The Swallows head and neck cancer charity, sent me a video this morning. It was compelling, because he has been a sufferer himself and he described his own circumstances. I want to say something to the JCVI, to each and every member of that august body, who are of course medically qualified in a way that I am not. What I want to say on behalf of all the people who have been treated and have approached me is what Chris Curtis said at the end of his video. Friends, when you are thinking of kicking this into the long grass because it is not going to affect many people for a very long time and we do not have to concern ourselves with tomorrow, remember what Chris Curtis said, very starkly: “Tomorrow comes very quickly.”

I will not ask the Minister to second-guess the JCVI—that would not be right. I do not believe that this is his decision to make, in the sense that I suspect he is little more medically qualified than I am. Neither of us has the expertise to make this judgment. Will he please convey that sense of urgency about tomorrow to the JCVI, with the firm and genuine request that he wants them to take a long-term view, and to make the decision on the balance of long-term cost, not savings tomorrow?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) on his address and on securing this debate. We have to remember two things. First, celibacy is about the only thing we cannot inherit from our parents. Sex may be adopted or forced on you, but it cannot be inherited, unless one is conceived in a glass dish, which most of us were not. Secondly, HPV is a vector. It goes from male to female and from female to male. If I was to alter my hon. Friend’s speech, I would say that the female, from whom the male may get the virus, probably got it from a male in the first place. We have to regard this as an almost endless chain of sexual engagement and the vector going on.

When I was involved in the HPV issue, it was to try to get the Government to bring in genital warts protection for females and to have that added to the cervical cancer vaccination. As it happened, the pharmaceutical company in the town I represent was making the vaccination that did not include it. Somebody came along and pointed out that this might mean a loss of trade for the particular business. I explained that the role and responsibility of a Member of Parliament—of the Government also—is not to put their constituency interest first, but to put the national interest first. My hon. Friend the Minister will not need any reminding that public health first means prevention of illness, then curing illness and then caring for those who cannot be cured. This issue is about prevention. The introductory speech should convince those behind the Minister to get things moving.

The arguments for delaying the addition of the HPV protection to the cervical cancer protection were scandalous. Adding to what my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet said, if we are looking for herd immunity, we should note that, as has been discovered in Australia, it comes twice as fast if young males are offered the protection at the same time as young females. There is the extreme case of those males who only have sex with males—the herd immunity will not get through to them, and that leads to 400 avoidable deaths a year.

The key point is to get herd immunity for everyone far faster. It seems to me blindingly obvious, in medical terms, public terms and cost terms, that the sooner that happens, the better. If there is some problem about the run-on of the existing contract only being for a certain number, I say to the Minister that no pharmaceutical company that I know supplying the national health service would object to having its order doubled, so that young males were included with young females.

We look forward to hearing that the Minister is persuaded and that he will give a strong nudge to the Joint Committee. We look forward, in time, to being able to congratulate my hon. Friend on achieving—with Government, the medical profession, the nursing profession and the affected communities—this progress, which has been too long delayed.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. There is not much more that I can add to the presentations that have been made by my colleagues, but I want to make a couple of points. First, this is not simply about the sexual relationships of gay people. It affects all of us. My colleagues made that point firmly, but we need to make it again. Secondly, this virus is horrible. It is a disgraceful virus—to anthropomorphise a virus. We have heard the descriptions of the cancers that are induced by it.

I want to concentrate on the preventive powers of this vaccination for genital warts. There is a strong case for that. They may appear to be insignificant, but I do not believe that they are; they are much more widely distributed among the population than the cancers induced by the virus. My hon. Friends the Members for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) have made a compelling case for the immunisation of boys, which I fully support.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) for bringing this debate today. I participated in the debate in June 2016, which the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) brought to the Floor of the House. I am delighted to be here for this debate. I also congratulate the hon. Members for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and for Henley (John Howell) on participating. I am slightly disappointed that more hon. Members are not here, because this is an important debate. It is especially important for hon. Members who happen to be men to understand the issue of HPV and their role in prevention.

Across the UK, the Governments of the various nations are progressing towards what I see as a progressive policy on HPV vaccination. As a Scottish constituency MP, I am delighted that the Government in Scotland are progressing that way and that this debate is taking place in the UK Government. In all good conscience, however, as a constituency MP I also have a role to highlight the issue around HPV and the need for men to be more aware of their role in sexual health, predominantly because this is a public health issue. A great amount of work is being done all over the world, which has impacted on people’s lives.

We heard about issues relating to penile cancer. It would be interesting to know how many hon. Members know that men can get penile cancer. When I was the secretary of Cahonas Scotland, a male cancer charity in Scotland, we did a piece of work with a broad range of men from different socioeconomic backgrounds. The very idea of issues such as penile cancer was an absolute shocker to them. We showed them pictures of men wearing adult nappies. The lived experience of other men dealing with the impact of cancer related to HPV was profound and they did not know anything about it.

This is not just a sexual health issue, but a public health one. Knowledge is power. Knowing more about the issue and being able to make an informed choice to have the vaccination with parental approval is critical in ensuring that young men are protected for the future. Nevertheless, clarity is required—it is a challenge for me to say this to Governments across the UK—on why we are articulating a message about the numbers game, in which it is just about cost. If we relate that to the lived experience of men living with the consequences of not having the vaccination—I believe there may be some in the Gallery today—the clinical evidence needs to inform the economic choice. The clinical evidence is that the vaccination for young men will save lives. That is about understanding the consequences of the failure to give the HPV vaccination to young men. Governments across the UK should no longer be timid. We are being progressive at the moment, but timidity does not save lives.

There is also a difficulty at the core of this debate. In public policy debates on public health, it seems that those of us in the public policy arena—men, predominantly—are abdicating responsibility by saying, usually through the herding immunisation argument, that the public health and sexual health of young men are down to young women. I do not find that acceptable. I can no longer stand as a Member of Parliament and look young women in my constituency in the eye and say that, from a policy perspective, abdicating sexual and public health to them is acceptable. It is the responsibility of policy makers to articulate a view that young men and young women have the right to this vaccination. In allowing that public policy narrative to continue, we as men are abdicating our responsibility to those young women. That is no longer sustainable.

Historically, it is now 100 years since women over 30 got the vote. How does that relate to this issue? It is about gender being at the heart of a public health debate. We are saying to young women that they are responsible for young men’s sexual health, with negative consequences for young men. In the 21st century, that is no longer tenable. It has profound consequences for young men in the future, in relation to cancers, and it is the same stuff that we said to young women in the 19th century: “We’ll just leave it to you when it comes to sexual health.”

The hon. Member for North Thanet said that instances of oral sex were a new thing since the 1960s, but I have to admit, that is news to me. When I look at the historical narrative of sexual—[Interruption.] I sometimes feel as though I might have been born then. The historical narrative of sexual health has traditionally been an abdication of responsibility from men to women. One need only look at the friezes in Pompeii where oral sex is de rigueur. It was no different in the 18th century, when women had to tolerate the sexual norms of men who would have sex with other men and with sex workers, and when the attitude was that women just had to deal with sexual health issues.

In 2018, I make no apology for saying: not in my name. The young men of the UK deserve better, and the young women in my constituency should expect no less from me as their Member of Parliament than for me to say to Ministers—not just here in London, but in Holyrood, Belfast and Cardiff—that we need to take collective responsibility and stop genderising the public health debate. Only then will we create a more equal, fairer and far healthier society, in which young men have the opportunity to participate and acknowledge their role in sexual health and, in future, to live healthy sexual lives without fear of talking about sex or HPV—and, frankly, without having to tell parliamentarians stories of their sexual activity to bring a debate to the Floor of the House. That is no longer tenable and we need to rise to the challenge.

We need to say to young men and older men who are suffering from HPV that we will do everything in our power as politicians to meet the challenge they have placed before us. We need to say to young women that we no longer accept that they are responsible for the sexual health of young men.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I thank the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) for securing this important and long-awaited debate, and for speaking with such knowledge and passion. I also thank the hon. Members for Henley (John Howell), for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for their contributions. Although we are few in number, due in no small part to the local elections, that has been more than made up for by quality.

As we have already heard, 70% to 80% of sexually active women and men will acquire HPV at some point in their lives. Most healthy people will be able to clear the infection out of their system and will never know that they had been infected, but 3% to 10% of cases lead to serious health conditions. HPV is a major cause of cancers in men and women, and accounts for 4.8% of the estimated 12.7 million new cancer cases occurring annually among men and women worldwide.

HPV is linked to nearly all cervical cancers, 70% to 75% of vaginal cancers, 29% of vulvar cancers, 50% of penile cancer and 85% to 90% of anal cancers in both sexes. HPV can also cause genital warts, as we have heard, which is the most common sexually transmitted disease caused by the virus in both sexes. Why, then, do we vaccinate only girls, when men and women can be infected?

Since 2008, girls aged between 11 and 13 in the UK have been offered the HPV vaccination. My daughter was in the first cohort. As a parent, I was a bit anxious when the new vaccination was rolled out, but I need not have been. The vaccination programme has been mostly successful, with a high uptake of about 85% nationally, and it has made an important contribution to reducing the burden of infection among young women in the UK.

However, there are significant regional differences in the uptake of the vaccination, with the lowest level of uptake of two doses at 48.3% in my region, in Stockton-on-Tees, compared with the highest level of uptake in East Renfrewshire at 95.6%, which is astonishingly high. What steps will the Minister take to address those regional inequalities in the vaccine uptake? How does he expect a herd immunity philosophy to apply in areas such as Stockton in the north-east, where uptake is so low?

It is clear from the ever-growing evidence that it is time to extend the HPV vaccination to boys. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation believes that the high uptake in girls protects enough males and makes it cost-ineffective to vaccinate boys too, but that short-sighted view protects only heterosexual men who come into sexual contact with a woman who has been vaccinated, and leaves out a significant proportion of the population. Despite the high uptake among young girls, a heterosexual man still has a one in seven chance of meeting an unvaccinated woman in a sexual encounter.

Men who have sex with men are also unprotected by a girls-only vaccination programme. They are 20 times more likely than heterosexual men to develop anal cancer, but the men who have sex with men—MSM—programme being piloted in England will not be sufficient to protect that population.

Between 2009 and 2014, the median age of the first presentation of men who have sex with men to sexual health services in England was 32 years old. They are therefore likely to have been having sex for many years before they attend a sexual health clinic. A recent study of men who have sex with men attending a London sexual health clinic found that 45% had a current HPV infection of a type that could cause cancer or genital warts, which suggests that a significant proportion of them will have already been infected before they are offered the HPV vaccination. Offering the vaccine in a sexual health clinic is too little, too late for men who have sex with men.

In addition, as we know, sexual health services are at a tipping point after demand for them increased by one quarter in the past five years, but at the same time, spending on them was cut year on year. Offering the vaccination in a sexual health clinic adds to the ever-growing demand on those services, but still excludes a significant proportion of the population and is far too late for some men.

The optimum age for the HPV vaccination to work is around 12 or 13 years old, when boys are unlikely to attend a sexual health clinic or may not be aware of, or willing to declare, their sexual orientation. The only solution to the problem is to offer the vaccine to both girls and boys while they are still at school and not sexually active. That will protect girls and boys from preventable disease.

HPV Action estimates that more than 2,000 new cases of HPV-related cancers are diagnosed each year in men in the UK. Like me, the Minister is passionate about reducing the incidence of cancer in this country. Extending the HPV vaccination programme to boys would be a step forward in doing that.

In response to a written question earlier this year, the Minister stated that the Government do not have an estimate of the number of boys and men each year who are left unprotected against HPV because of a lack of direct or herd immunity. However, HPV Action estimates that, with each year that passes, another cohort of almost 400,000 boys is left unvaccinated and potentially at risk of HPV infection and the diseases it causes. As the briefing I received from the Terrence Higgins Trust says:

“When we have a vaccine that can provide effective protection against such illnesses, it is unacceptable to maintain that vaccinating only one half of the population is sufficient to stop preventable ill health.”

HPV is not gender specific, so the vaccination programme should not be gender-specific either.

This is not a new philosophy. In fact, 14 countries are already vaccinating boys against HPV, or they will be soon. They include Australia, Austria, Bermuda, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Serbia, Switzerland and the US. Compared with their international peers, therefore, boys in the UK are at risk of being disadvantaged.

This is an opportunity for us to play a leading role globally in the elimination of cancer caused by HPV, but we are at risk of letting that opportunity slip away. Since 2013, the JCVI has been reviewing whether to extend the HPV immunisation programme to boys. However, the publication of a final decision has been deferred twice. The thousands of boys who go unvaccinated each year cannot afford to wait any longer and the JCVI must make a decision this year, preferably when they meet next month. I therefore urge the Minister to work with the JCVI as it comes to make its decision, so that both genders can be protected from these preventable diseases.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry, I think for the first time. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) on securing the debate and bringing this important subject to the House. He was in the Chair the last time I was in Westminster Hall, which was just yesterday. I am surprised that so few Members are present for the debate. As the shadow Minister suggested, perhaps matters elsewhere in the House and outside are occupying their minds.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet mentioned, our expert group, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, is considering this matter, and it is important that I do not pre-empt its final advice, as he rightly said. That does make the timing of the debate challenging, but I will respond as fully as I can and give as much context as possible.

I will first set out some of the context. In 2008—before I was even a Member of the House—on the advice of the JCVI, an HPV vaccination programme for girls was introduced. The primary objective was to protect against cervical cancer. As the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) kindly said, my mission in life—not just in my job—is to challenge and beat that dreadful disease. While I am on the subject, I pay tribute to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust and the brilliant Rob Music, who leads it—I know that the hon. Lady knows them well. The trust’s work in this area over many years, including with me as Minister, has been truly transformative for many women’s lives.

The HPV vaccine that is used in the UK offers protection against the two types of HPV that are responsible for about 70% of cervical cancers, and since the introduction of our vaccination programme the number of young women infected with HPV has fallen dramatically. Protection is expected to be long-term, eventually saving hundreds of lives each year, which I am sure we all agree is very welcome. Today, however, our focus is on boys and men.

Is the Minister aware of the paper on this subject by Dr Gillian Prue of Queen’s University Belfast? Dr Prue’s six recommendations are very similar to what the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and others have put forward today. They include: first, that both men and women should be vaccinated against HPV-related diseases; and secondly, and more importantly, that the significant human cost of HPV-related diseases should be the primary consideration for including boys in vaccination programmes. If the Minister has not been made aware of the paper, I am happy to furnish him with the copy. Its recommendations are integral to moving forward on the issue.

Not wishing to mislead the House, my honest answer is that I am not aware of that paper. Whether my officials are aware of it is another matter—I will ask them. I know that the hon. Gentleman will not be shy about putting a copy in my hand after the debate.

The good news is that HPV vaccination of girls also provides some—I emphasise “some”—indirect protection for boys. When the vaccination uptake rates are high, as they are in England, there are fewer HPV infections in heterosexual males, because the spread of HPV infection between girls and boys is reduced. There is evidence to back that up; it is not just words. For instance, diagnosis of first-episode genital warts in young heterosexual men between the ages of 15 and 17 declined by 62% between 2009 and 2016. That suggests that there is some—again, I emphasise “some”—herd protection from the existing HPV vaccination programme. However, that is not the start of the story, and neither is it the end, and I have to put it on the record that nobody in Government has ever said that it was. Nevertheless, I take the points that have been made today about herd immunity; it is only part of the story.

Of course, it will take much longer to see the impact that the girls programme has on HPV-related cancers, but we should not wait for those results before considering whether more needs to be done now for boys. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet said, this is a slow-burn problem.

It is just a matter of pure mathematics. If 100%, or nearly 100%, of any age cohort —male and female—gets the vaccination, the herd immunity develops much faster than just relying on vaccinating up to 50% of that cohort.

I think that my hon. Friend is stating facts, and I know that the JCVI officials who are here today will have heard him.

The JCVI keeps all vaccination programmes under review, as it should, and it keeps Ministers informed of any reviews. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet is aware, given the increasing evidence about the link between HPV infection and oral, throat, anal and penile cancers, alongside the incidence of genital warts, the JCVI has considered whether HPV vaccination is now needed for males.

I understand the point that the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) made about the surprise about penile cancer. He has more experience of the subject than I do, but it is not a surprise to me. I work with a very good charity called Orchid Cancer, some of whose staff attend my cancer roundtable regularly. It deals with male cancers and is trying to raise awareness of penile cancer as a challenge in society today. It is an issue that is difficult for society, let alone for men, to talk about. I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has said today.

The JCVI considered its current piece of work in two parts: first, whether the HPV vaccination should be introduced for men who have sex with men—MSM—and secondly, whether it should be introduced for adolescent boys. MSM, as we know, are a group at high risk of HPV infection. Unlike heterosexual men, of course, they are unlikely to receive much, if any, indirect protection from the HPV vaccination programme for girls. The JCVI advised us that a targeted HPV vaccination programme should be introduced for MSM up to the age of 45 who attend genitourinary medicine clinics or HIV clinics. Following a successful pilot in 42 clinics that was led by Public Health England, we announced in February that the programme would roll out across the country from April, and it is now being rolled out. That programme is welcome, but again I fully appreciate that it is not the start and it is certainly not the end of the story, for some of the reasons that the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West set out in her very coherent remarks.

Let me turn to the issue of adolescent boys. Of the non-cervical HPV-associated cancers, not all cases are caused by HPV—indeed, the percentage of cases that are attributable to HPV is widely debated. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet mentioned The Swallows, which I do not have much contact with, although I have heard of it. I passed a note to my officials asking them to get in touch with the charity as a result of this debate, so it should look out for that. For head and neck cancers, alcohol is an important risk factor to take into account, but HPV does play a role, and that is why the JCVI is considering whether vaccination for boys should be introduced.

The JCVI issued interim advice on HPV last July. As Members know, that was subject to consultation. It is reviewing the evidence ahead of finalising its advice to Ministers. Its members are the experts, and they are best placed to consider the evidence and provide advice to Ministers. That is the system that Parliament has mandated. Parliament could change it, but that is our system.

When the Minister sends a report of this debate to the JCVI, it might be worth him respectfully saying that some of us here are aware of how long it took it to agree to bring in HPV protection even for females. It might want to consider whether postponing that decision was right or wrong. In my view, it was wrong. The people at the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV knew that it was wrong, and it took an awfully long time for them to change their minds. Can we please ask them respectfully not to make the same mistake again?

Those people are nearer to my hon. Friend than he knows, and they will have heard his point.

In his opening remarks, my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet asked the JCVI to take the long view, and I hope that I can reassure him somewhat on that point. Some examples of what the JCVI is taking into account in its considerations include: the projected future number of HPV cancers resulting from the current incidence of HPV infection; the potential savings as a result of preventing future cancers, which a number of Members have mentioned; the potential savings from preventing genital warts; and, crucially for my hon. Friend’s point, the long-term impact of HPV infection up to 100 years into the future, which will outlive even him.

The JCVI’s interim advice indicated that to vaccinate boys would be

“highly unlikely to be cost-effective in the UK, where uptake in adolescent girls is consistently high”.

It is true that the UK has achieved high uptake for the girls HPV immunisation programme for the past 10 years. In 2016-17, 83.1% of girls completed the current two-dose course, including the daughter of the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West. I have two young children—one of each—and of course those of us who are parents want what is best for our children. Somehow arguments about cost-effectiveness do not feel right. Cost-effectiveness is important, however, because it is about how to fairly, consistently and robustly assess which interventions and treatments should be funded in what we must remember is a publicly funded health system. We need to deliver value for money for the taxpayer and deliver the most health benefit possible to all patients. That is our system.

I take on board what the Minister is saying for areas where uptake is high but, as I cited earlier, there are parts of the country where uptake is nowhere near high enough, such as Stockton, where it is 48%. How does that work? How does that argument stand up for those parts of the country?

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. I was hoping to have a note to respond on that specific point about regional inequalities, but I will have to write to her. Perhaps it is something we can discuss offline. That very good point has not been raised with me recently, but I will take it away and follow it up.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet did not mention discrimination and equality, but other Members certainly did. I accept that equality needs consideration in this case, and I confirm that the Department is carrying out an equality analysis. That cannot be completed until we have received the JCVI’s final advice and we know what it is advising and why, but I can confirm that officials will make contact with key organisations such as HPV Action—I met members of it recently at a roundtable I held on cost-effectiveness methodology for immunisation programmes and procurement, and I know that some of them are here today—as they progress the equality analysis to ensure that such views are taken into account. I confirm that the equality analysis will be published, and I will make the House aware when it is.

There have been a number of threats of judicial review related to equality and sex discrimination in relation to HPV vaccination. I do not think it would be appropriate to say more at this stage, but the House will have heard those two commitments.

On the equality point and the herd immunity point, may I raise the issue of men who have sex with men and the fact that their first presentation at a sexual health clinic could be at the age of 32? Again, there is no way for there to be herd immunity or even for us to extend the vaccination, as we have done in the pilot, to men who have sex with men. There will still be huge numbers of people not covered. Does the Minister agree, and what is he going to do about that?

The hon. Lady makes her point, and it is not one that I miss, I assure her. That issue forms part of the ongoing deliberations. She has made that point twice, and it is a good point.

I know there are concerns, to put it mildly. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet set out the timeline of how long it is taking the JCVI to finalise its advice. However, the consultation raised some important, complex issues around the cost-effectiveness model, and it would be remiss of the JCVI not to ask for those issues to be addressed before it puts the matter on its agenda and makes its final decision. I appreciate that my hon. Friend and other Members want the advice quickly—believe me, so do I—but I cannot advocate asking the JCVI to cut corners, which would call into question the quality and robustness of its advice and undermine an internationally respected organisation. The JCVI will get its advice on boys to me as soon as it can, and I am certainly expecting it this year. As soon as I have it, we will turn it around as quickly as we can.

I am totally committed to our world-leading vaccination programme. It is an area where this country leads the world. I am as keen as my hon. Friend and other Members present to hear the JCVI’s final advice on HPV vaccination for boys as soon as possible. The JCVI has helped successive generations of Ministers and, as my hon. Friend said, it will help those who come after me—there will be many, and maybe sooner than we think. It has helped Ministers make decisions that are fair and justifiable, and we need to allow it to complete its advice without too many distractions that could slow it down even further, which no one wants.

We have heard an impassioned case for an HPV vaccination programme for boys from, among others, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West, for whom I have so much respect. As my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) suggested, I will send a transcript of the debate to the JCVI to ensure that in the unlikely event there are any issues it was not aware of, that can be reflected in its final advice. It is listening to the debate today. For the reasons I gave at the start of my remarks, I cannot give the House an indication of when exactly a decision will be made, or what that decision might be—trust me, I would love to—but I can say that I will prioritise consideration of the JCVI’s final advice as soon as I receive it.

May I first thank you, Sir Henry, for presiding over this debate with lenience, and for allowing a frank discussion of what is clearly a sensitive subject? When we do not write speeches, as I do not, we fly by the seat of our pants and ad lib. Inevitably, we miss things. I am therefore particularly grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and for Henley (John Howell), and to the hon. Members for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who clearly has a tremendous grasp of the subject. Together colleagues have put flesh on the skeleton that I sought to create at the start of the debate. I am very thankful indeed for that.

I hugely appreciate the candour with which the Minister has spoken and the positive attitude he takes to this difficult issue. I also understand that from his point of view the timing is not easy, given the imminence of the JCVI discussions. I hope and believe that as a result of all the representations that have been made, not only in this debate but across the piece, the JCVI will now take what to some of us is the obvious decision and, for a relatively small amount of money, create a much better environment for both boys and girls in the future.

To conclude, the Minister said that he had two children. I have five grandchildren. We cannot wait. I quote again the remarks that were made earlier: “Tomorrow comes very quickly.”

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the case for HPV vaccination for boys.

Sitting suspended.