HPV Vaccine 'Protects Males from Cancers' - Global Report

HPV vaccines have substantially reduced the prevalence of HPV infections and precancerous lesions.
As a new report shows the human papillomavirus vaccine can also protect men and boys, we take a look at HPV vaccines, and their impact on world health
Latest global HPV vaccine study
  • The study included an estimated 1.7 million volunteers who were vaccinated against HPV since 2010.
  • Volunteers were aged between nine and 39. There were equal numbers of unvaccinated volunteers. In total, about 44% of those who took part were male.
  • Vaccinated males had lower rates of head and neck cancers in particular. Previously, it was believed smoking was the biggest single cause of head and neck cancers.
  • The study showed that per 100,000 vaccinated patients, 3.4 cases (head) and 2.8 cases (neck) of cancers, compared with 7.5 (head) and 6.3 (neck) per 100,000 of unvaccinated patients.

Boys and men can benefit from human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination, which can cut the risk of a range of cancers, a new study shows.

The study of around 3.4 million people is one of the first long-term analyses of the vaccine's efficacy on preventing HPV-related cancers of the head and neck, anal areas, penis, vulva, vagina and cervix, Reuters reports. 

Previous HPV vaccine studies have focused on cervical cancer. The most recent significant research along those lines was conducted in Sweden in 2020, and showed cervical cancer rates were 47 for every 100,000 vaccinated women and 94 per 100,000 in unvaccinated women.

The latest study will be presented to the upcoming American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting in Chicago, which takes place from May 31 to June 2.

ASCO President Dr Lynn Schuchter says the new study “extends what we know and shows that preventing infection with the vaccine helps prevent these additional HPV-related cancers”.

In light of the HPV vaccine study findings, we take an in depth look at the evolution of the vaccine, the pharmaceutical companies involved, and how HPV vaccination programmes play out in different territories.

Merck & GSK in HPV vaccine vanguard

Merck's HPV vaccine was approved in 2006 for girls and women ages 9 to 26 and in 2009 for boys and men in that age group. The most recent version, Gardasil 9, has been approved in the U.S. since 2018 for use in children and adults ages 9 through 45.

A separate study to be presented at the ASCO meeting found that between 2011 and March 2020, U.S. uptake of the HPV vaccine rose from 23.3% to 43.0% of the eligible population, improving from 7.8% to 36.4% in males and from 37.7% to 49.4% among females.

HPV vaccines help ease the significant global healthcare burden that these diseases pose. Cervical cancer is the third most common cancer globally, and the second most frequent cause of cancer deaths among women aged between 15 and 44 years.

Vaccines for HPV first became available in the early 2000s, after research by pharmaceutical companies including Merck and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

Merck's Gardasil, approved in 2006, and GSK’s Cervarix (2009) were the first vaccines to target strains of HPV responsible for cervical cancer and genital warts

Merck's vaccine is for girls and women ages nine to 26 and in 2009 for boys and men in the same age group. The most recent version, Gardasil 9, was approved for use in the US in 2018 for use in children and adults ages Nine to 45. Gardasil 9 protects against nine HPV strains responsible for cervical, vulvar, vaginal and anal cancers.

In terms of sales, Merck and GSK enjoy significant revenue from their HPV vaccine portfolios, with earnings estimates suggesting Merck's Gardasil franchise and GKS’s Cervarix generate billions of (US) dollars annually for the companies.

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HPV vaccine uptake affected by socioeconomic conditions

The introduction of HPV vaccines has led to a substantial reduction in the prevalence of HPV infections and precancerous lesions in countries with high vaccination coverage rates. 

In North America, where HPV vaccination programs have been in place for over a decade, there has been a noticeable decline (by 51%) in cervical cancer rates among women aged 20-24. Similar trends have been reported in Canada, and also in European countries with HPV vaccination programs. In total, as of November 2022, 38 of 53 countries in the WHO European Region have introduced the HPV vaccine. 

In the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region, the uptake of HPV vaccines has been uneven, with varying levels of implementation across countries. Australia introduced a national HPV vaccination program in 2007, and has reported a substantial decline in HPV infections and precancerous lesions among vaccinated age groups.

But in the developing world, especially Africa, HPV vaccine uptake is adversely influenced by factors such as poor healthcare infrastructure, lack of awareness campaigns and unfavourable socioeconomic conditions.

Leading the way in Africa is Nigeria, which in 2023 ran a vaccination programme reaching 7.7 million girls, the largest number in a single round of HPV vaccination on the continent.

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