If you’re in your late twenties or are male, you probably won’t have had the HPV vaccine.
The vaccination, which protects against the human papilloma virus (HPV), was introduced under the NHS in 2008 for girls aged 12 to 13 in schools.
But now, both men and women can pay to have the vaccination at high street pharmacies.
Boots has just announced it will be offering the vaccination to both men and women between the ages of 12-44 years old. While last month, Superdrug extended the availability of its vaccinations for nine to 26-year-olds to 62 of its branches.
But getting the vaccination at both stores comes with a hefty price tag, with prices ranging between £300 and £450.
So what exactly is the HPV vaccine for and is getting it later in life a good idea?
According to Cancer Research UK, there are hundreds of different types of HPV and up to eight out of 10 people will be infected with the virus at some point in their lives.
Most types of HPV are harmless, but around 3,100 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in the UK each year and nearly all are related to HPV. This explains why the NHS vaccination targets young women.
But what you may not be aware of, is that HPV has also been linked to other cancers, including some affecting males.
Although less common, some strains of HPV have been linked to anal and penile cancers in men, as well as some forms of genital warts.
The virus is transmitted through close skin to skin or sexual contact with another person already carrying the virus.
Because of this, Boots pharmacist Tom Kallis says “anyone who is sexually active is at risk of becoming infected with HPV”.
“The best time to be vaccinated is before an individual becomes sexually active,” he told The Huffington Post UK.
According to Kallis, the risk of acquiring an infection increases with:
The number of sexual partners
The introduction of a new sexual partner
Early onset of sexual activity (based on probability)
The sexual history of partners
“Additionally the risk of high risk HPV infection developing into cancer increases if a person has a weakened immune system (medicine or disease-related) or if they smoke,” he said.
Boots’ service is available to 12-14 year olds at £300 for a course of two vaccinations. Meanwhile, those aged 15 and over will need a series of three vaccinations, costing £450.
Similarly, Superdrug is advertising the drug at £150 per dose, advising patients that they will need either two or three doses.
The HPV vaccine is also available at a number of private clinics – such as Fleet Street Clinic, which was the first place to offer the vaccine privately in the UK – for a slightly higher price, at £185 per dose.
Although the high price tag might put you off, being vaccinated against HPV offers the best protection against the virus.
Girls can have the HPV vaccination on the NHS up to their eighteenth birthday. If they missed the vaccine in school for any reason, they can ask their GP to arrange it.
Although ideally you should have the vaccine before becoming sexually active, Kallis explained that it is still beneficial to have later in life and once you are sexually active.
“With increasing age you may have a less pronounced immune response to the vaccination – but are likely to still get some benefit,” he said.
However, the Superdrug vaccine is only available to customers up to the age of 26, while the Boots vaccine is only available for individuals up to the age of 44. Kallis said this is because there is currently not enough evidence to show whether or not it is effective in those aged over 44.
“If you are sexually active, you will still benefit from having the vaccination as this will help protect you against HPV infections in the future,” Kallis said.
“However, it will have no effect on active infections and established or previous disease. It will also not prevent possible development of disease if you are already infected with HPV.”
He added that there is no requirement to have a test prior to vaccination to see if you’re already infected with HPV, although women can have a smear test to detect symptoms of HPV. There is currently no reliable way to test for HPV in men.
But even if you’ve previously been infected with HPV, the vaccine could protect you against different strains.
The World Health Organisation advises that HPV infections usually clear up without any intervention within a few months after acquisition, with around 90% clear within two years.
One in 135 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer during their lifetime whereas just one in 795 men will be diagnosed with anal cancer, so purely based on statistics, the high street vaccine may appeal more to women than men.
Robert Music, chief executive of Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, is pleased to see the availability of the vaccine extended.
“The human papillomavirus vaccination offers one of the best forms of protection against cervical cancer. Uptake of the free vaccination, offered through the NHS childhood vaccination programme, is currently at 86% and increasing each year which is extremely positive to see,” he said.
“Research has shown that if uptake of the vaccination continues at over 80% we could see a two thirds reduction in cervical cancer incidence in women under 30 by 2025.
“Cervical cancer is largely preventable however every day nine women are diagnosed with the disease and two will sadly lose their lives. I would encourage all women to take steps to protect themselves against cervical cancer and it is excellent to see Superdrug providing that opportunity.”
Sexual health charity FPA’s senior policy officer, Laura Russell, also supports the vaccine being avaialble on the high street, but has called for the NHS scheme to be extended.
“We welcome this opportunity for all genders to receive the HPV vaccine, as currently only girls are routinely vaccinated against HPV. However, the vaccination should be available free in schools for boys, instead of having to pay such a large cost privately,” she said.
“As part of the coalition group HPV Action, we are calling on the government’s vaccination advisory committee to recommend that boys should also be given the HPV vaccine.”
But as Dr Christian Jessen, who’s supporting Boots’ vaccine launch, points out, the best way to protect yourself against HPV is to practise safe sex.
“The virus is spread by close skin to skin or sexual contact with another person already carrying the virus, which is why I encourage boys and girls to get vaccinated prior to being sexually active,” he said.
“It’s important to always take precautions against sexually transmitted infections, and those vaccinated still need to protect themselves from other types of sexually transmitted infections, by using condoms.”