Zur Hausen, who won the 2008 Nobel Prize for medicine for making the connection between a range of human papillomaviruses (HPV) and cervical cancer, has long called for boys as well as girls to be given the vaccine against the virus.
“If we really want to drastically reduce or even eradicate the viruses in the foreseeable future, we can only do this if both sexes are vaccinated,” he said.
Girls are generally given the vaccines between the ages of nine and 14 – ideally before they embark on any sexual activity.
The viruses are passed on through sexual contact, and while the link to cervical cancer is well known, they are also the main cause of anal, tonsil and tongue cancer, wrote Margaret Stanley from Cambridge University in the UK.
There is also evidence linking it to malignant penile and laryngeal tumours, she said in the respected journal.
“One reckons that the viruses are the main cause of five percent of all human cancers,” she wrote, adding that men can pass on the viruses during sex.
Stanley explicitly warned of rare malignant anal tumours which have been affecting increasing numbers of men aged between 20 and 49 recently. Men having gay sex are most at risk of these, she said.
Although there are widespread HPV vaccination programmes for girls across Europe, only health authorities in the USA, Canada and Australia have been pushing for boys to get the jab too.
Zur Hausen added that one of the HPVs was also responsible for another less deadly but nonetheless most unpleasant infection. “Genital warts, which are protected against by at least one of the vaccines, are an extremely unpleasant and unwelcome infection,” he said.
He said resistance to giving the vaccination to boys came from the assumption that if enough girls were vaccinated, that would protect everyone – so-called herd immunity. That was “somewhat naive,” he said, pointing to a vaccination rate in Germany of less than 40 percent of girls which he said was not enough to protect boys.
He also called for the government to follow the example of the UK and Vietnam in negotiating with the pharmaceutical companies for a discounted price for the vaccine to make a more widespread programme easier to fund.
Stanley called for all boys to be vaccinated too. “All men, independent of sexual orientation, face a significant and increasing risk of HPV-associated illnesses,” she wrote.
It was not fair, ethical or socially responsible to force men to rely on the expectation of herd immunity, which would not be achieved for decades, she said.