HPV Vaccine: 2nd July 2013

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anna Soubry)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) on securing the debate and bringing this important subject before the House. He speaks, as ever, with considerable knowledge and makes a powerful argument. I would not expect anything other than that from my hon. Friend.

I shall not rehearse the statistics on vaccination— they were well explained by my hon. Friend—and the success that it has had in its take-up among young women. It has been a success. Seven million doses have ​been given so far in the United Kingdom, and we have achieved one of the highest rates of HPV vaccine coverage in the world, with 87% of the routine cohort of girls completing the three-dose course in the 2011-12 academic year. That contrasts with 35% take-up in America. The very low take-up in America explains why America has extended the vaccination to boys as well as girls; it is only 35% in girls.

As my hon. Friend explained most ably, because of the high uptake of HPV vaccine among girls, it is argued correctly that many boys are indirectly protected against HPV-associated cancers, such as anal cancer and head and neck cancers, as transmission of the virus between girls and boys should be substantially lowered. But of course, my hon. Friend is making the point that it does not protect men who have sex with men, and men who have sex with women who have not had the vaccine.

Jim Shannon
In my intervention on the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), I made the point about conducting campaigns regionally and UK-wide. Has the Minister had any discussions with the Health Minister in Northern Ireland, for instance, or the Health Minister in Scotland to ensure that we have a UK-wide strategy to address this issue?

Anna Soubry
I am going to repeat everything that has been said, and I agree; that is a very important point. As my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green argues, the vaccine does not protect men who have sex with women who have not been vaccinated, because they may have been in a country where the vaccine was not available to them. So I completely take the point, which is well made, and ask my officials to take it back to the Department.

As hon. Members know, the Department of Health is advised on all immunisation matters by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation—an independent expert advisory committee—and our HPV vaccination policies are accordingly based on the advice of the JCVI. When the committee considered the introduction of the HPV vaccine in relation to cervical cancer, it did not recommend the vaccination of boys because with high vaccine uptake among girls, as is the case in the UK, it is judged that there would be little benefit in vaccinating boys. With the high uptake of HPV vaccine among girls, we would expect many boys to be indirectly protected against vaccine-type HPV infections and associated diseases, including anal cancer, head and neck cancers and penile cancers. However, the JCVI recognises that under the current programme, the same protection may not be provided to men who have sex with men, and of course men who have sex with women who have not had the vaccination.

Mr Spencer
I hope the Minister would recognise that, obviously, ideally we should be vaccinating boys who are pre-puberty, and at that stage we have no idea of their sexual orientation or whether they may fulfil their career abroad or in the UK, so we have no way to identify whether they are at risk.

Anna Soubry
I am going to struggle, because that is another good point. I always try to be honest when I come to the Dispatch Box and when hon. Members ​make good points—points that were made not only by my hon. Friend, but by the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash).

The point raised by the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) is related to the actual vaccine, and I am more than happy to discuss that case, or any other adverse reactions of young women to the vaccine, with him. I am very sorry for his constituent, and I am more than happy to have that discussion with him and help in any way I can. He raises an important point.

As we have heard, in June 2012 the JCVI was presented with data on HPV infections and it noted that there is early evidence to suggest that the HPV immunisation programme in England is lowering the number of HPV 16 and 18 infections—the strains of HPV that are linked to these unpleasant cancers—in females in birth cohorts that have been eligible for vaccination.

I accept that the data are very limited on the prevalence of HPV infections among men who have sex with men, but we hope that research under way at University College London will provide more data and an age profile of HPV prevalence. HPVs, particularly types 16 and 18, are associated with the majority of anal cancers as well as cervical cancers, and to a lesser degree with penile, vaginal, vulval and head and neck cancers, but HPV types 16 and 18 predominate in cancers at those sites that are HPV-related. Data on the impact of HPV vaccination on infection at some of these non-cervical sites are limited.

The JCVI noted that the potential impact of HPV vaccination on non-cervical cancers would make the current HPV immunisation programme even more cost-effective, but it would remain the case that, given the expected effects of immunisation on HPV transmission and the indirect protection of boys that accrues from high coverage of HPV vaccination in girls, vaccination of boys in addition to girls was unlikely to be cost-effective. That argument, which we know is advanced, is combated by all that has been said by my hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) and for Finchley and Golders Green, who urge us to consider the cost of treating someone who has one of these cancers.

Evidence for indirect protection would continue to be evaluated by the ongoing HPV surveillance programme at the former Health Protection Agency, now part of Public Health England, but the JCVI agreed that there may be little indirect protection of men who have sex with men from the current immunisation programme. Therefore, the impact and cost-effectiveness of vaccination strategies for men who have sex with men, with the offer of vaccination through general practice and/or at genito-urinary medicine clinics, needed to be assessed. In addition, data on the prevalence by age of HPV infections in men who have sex with men and in the settings where vaccination could be offered to them were needed to determine the potential effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of HPV vaccination of men who have sex with men. It would also be important to understand better the rates of HPV-related disease in men who have sex with men and the influence of HPV on HIV infection.

As we have heard, in August 2012, the JCVI issued a call for evidence from interested parties, including for information to inform a study on the impact and cost-effectiveness of HPV vaccination of men who have sex with men. Any new proposals for the vaccination of ​additional groups will require supporting evidence to show that this would be a cost-effective use of resources. The JCVI also asked the HPA, now part of PHE, to undertake that study. The study is under way and, once completed, will be considered by the JCVI, at the earliest in 2014. The Department will consider carefully the advice from JCVI, once the committee has completed its assessment.
 
Pamela Nash
May I reiterate the point the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made about the need to have conversations with ministerial colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? As the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) argued powerfully, this is about homosexual men and men who have sex with men, but also about men who have sex with women who have not been vaccinated. It is important to have those conversations with the other nations.

Anna Soubry
I am grateful for that intervention. I was about to conclude by saying that it is only fair and right to acknowledge the powerful arguments that have been advanced by a number of hon. Members this evening. They have certainly caused me to take the view that I will not hesitate to contact the JCVI, as a matter of urgency, to raise all these important points with them. The committee is an independent expert body, and when it gives its advice to the Government, the Government are—quite rightly—bound to accept that advice.
 
Mike Freer
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the commitment and the confirmation that the JCVI is now looking at this, but while we are waiting for 2014 and the results, can my hon. Friend confirm, if not tonight then in writing, that the Department of Health will give some guidance that sexual health clinics and GUM clinics can offer the vaccinations as an option before that becomes mandatory, should the JCVI recommend that?
 
Anna Soubry
I had thought that that was already the situation; but if I am wrong, I will not hesitate to agree to a quite proper, reasonable request. I think that I am wrong.
 
Mike Freer
My hon. Friend is being very generous. May I confirm that the vaccination is available only to men on private health schemes and that they have to pay for it?
 
Anna Soubry
Forgive me—it is available, but people have to pay for it. The point being made is that they should not have to pay for it. It should be available, like any other vaccination. That is a good point, and one that I am more than happy to take up.

These are all important and powerful arguments, especially when they are advanced on the basis of inequality, which should concern us all, wherever it may lie, and a good argument has been made that it is simply not fair on men who have sex with men that they should not have the same sort of protection as heterosexual men. If for no other reason, that demands that I make further inquiry.

I repeat—I am sorry to have to repeat it—the committee is an independent body, but it has such force and power that when it makes a recommendation, there is no debate or argument about it: the Government follow its recommendation. I am more than happy to take the matter forward and to make sure also, which is very important, that the committee’s recommendations and findings are made as soon as possible. At present, I am told that that will be in 2014 at the earliest, but it seems to be the sort of matter that requires everybody’s most urgent attention. I hope that is a positive note on which to finish.

Question put and agreed to.