The BDA has welcomed official confirmation from Public Health England that the vaccination programme against the human papillomavirus (HPV) will start in September 2019 for 12-13 year-old boys, and has called on government to redouble its efforts on parent education, given the drop in uptake among females and rising profile of 'anti-vax' campaigners.
A member of the HPV Action campaign coalition, the BDA had pressed for extension given the surge in oral cancer rates fuelled by the virus. It has insisted that promotional materials seek to counter the extreme and unfounded health scares featuring widely across social media.
Official data shows that rates of uptake among girls for two doses of the vaccine fell from 86% in 2006 to 83.9% in 2018, and remained consistently below the 90-95% levels required for herd immunity. While the national target of immunising 80% of girls is being met, there is wide variation in uptake between local authority areas. The condition is linked to 5% of all cancers worldwide, including some that affect only men.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock pledged in March to tackle the growth in anti-vax sentiment via legislation. He said: "we are working to tackle vaccine misinformation…by reducing its distribution and providing people with authoritative information on the topic."
The BDA is seeking assurances the plans for HPV vaccination will be properly resourced and take a robust approach where necessary. The high visibility campaigning that surrounded the female HPV vaccination programme at launch in 2008 has tailed off, with parents and schools currently able to access a small range of downloadable resources.
Recent cases have emerged of anti-vax leaflets snuck into children's books sold via Amazon warehouses, including baseless claims of the Gardasil vaccine "causing injury, infertility, paralysis … ovarian failure and death, amongst other conditions". Social media is awash with content falsely linking the vaccine to conditions including brain damage, Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) and Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS). Panic over such claims saw the vaccination rate in Japan drop to less than 1% from a high point of over 70%.
The BDA has called for a catch-up programme for older boys while they are still in school. Failure to pursue this policy, applied when the programme was first introduced to girls, will leave up to 2 million boys across the UK unprotected.
BDA Chair Mick Armstrong said: "A universal HPV programme will offer protection to all children from life-changing conditions like throat cancer. But with uptake among girls already in decline, Ministers need to cut through the noise, and make a clear and compelling and case.
"Online and off parents are being bombarded with fake news and bad science. We need real investment in a hard-nosed, evidenced-based approach, that pulls no punches with the myth-makers."