The Oral Health Foundation and Portman-Dentex are urging parents to make sure their children receive a vaccination that could save their lives by preventing a range of deadly cancers, including mouth cancer.
The vaccination for human papillomavirus (HPV) is made available to schoolchildren between the ages of 12-15, but vaccine rates have plummeted in recent years due to school closures and absences due to Covid-19.
Despite a post-pandemic catch-up programme leading to almost 600,000 Year 10 pupils receiving the jab, uptake amongst Year 8 and 9 children remains significantly below pre-covid levels.
HPV is linked to five per cent of all cancers and is a leading cause of mouth cancer and cervical cancer.
The virus is transmitted through sexual activity and is extremely common. Four in five (80 per cent) unvaccinated adults will pick it up at some point in their life. For most people, HPV causes no symptoms, and they will be unaware they have it. However, in some people, HPV develops into cancer. It can also cause genital warts.
The charity Oral Health Foundation and Portman-Dentex, one of the UK’s leading dental care groups, have come together as part of November’s Mouth Cancer Action Month to raise awareness of the HPV vaccine and urge parents to check whether their child is protected.
Dr Nigel Carter, chief executive of the Oral Health Foundation, says, “HPV is a leading cause of mouth cancer, a disease which has seen the number of cases double over the last generation. The best form of protection against HPV is vaccination, which to be effective, should happen before a person becomes sexually active.
“The pandemic led to mass disruption for school vaccination programmes, so please check that your child is up to date and received their HPV dose. If you are not sure, or if you think they missed out, please contact their school. It’s a life-saving vaccination and important they are protected.”
New data collected by the Oral Health Foundation and Portman-Dentex suggests that awareness and confidence around the HPV vaccine in the UK is improving.
Around one in five (19 per cent) adults now know HPV is a cause of mouth cancer, while one in four (24 per cent) understand that the virus is passed on during sexual activity. Awareness of HPV and its relationship to mouth cancer has almost doubled over recent years.
The study involving 2,000 people also shows that confidence in the HPV vaccine has improved by around 20 per cent in the last year alone. Despite this, around one in three (30 per cent) don’t feel like they know enough about the HPV vaccination.
Catherine Tannahill, a dentist, and director of dentistry at Portman-Dentex, believes increased awareness about HPV is linked to the rise in cases and wants to reassure parents about the vaccine’s effectiveness and safety.
Catherine says, “The rise in the number of mouth cancer cases has been well documented over the last few years, as has the link with HPV. Combined with growing public information campaigns and media coverage, the population is becoming vastly more aware of the virus.
“The vaccine programme has been running in the UK for 15 years. It has potentially saved millions of lives, and there’s a wealth of robust evidence of its effectiveness to protect a person from HPV-related cancers and diseases.
“I have seen the devastating effect that HPV mouth cancer has on a person’s life so I would encourage all parents to make sure their child is vaccinated.”
Despite the HPV vaccine being offered to girls in the UK since 2008, a programme for boys was only launched in 2019.
Further research by the Oral Health Foundation and Portman-Dentex has identified a clear divide in HPV awareness, weighted heavily towards female-linked cancers. Significantly more people identify HPV with cervical (54 per cent), vagina (39 per cent) and vulva (28 per cent) cancers compared to male-orientated cancers like anal and penile cancer.
This mirrors vaccination uptake rates. Latest UK data shows 83 per cent of girls received at least one dose of the HPV jab, compared to 78 per cent of boys.
Catherine added, “The success of the HPV vaccine programme has been overwhelmingly positive and has led to a 90 per cent reduction in cervical cancer in younger women. However, the vaccine was so strongly linked with cervical cancer that it’s potential influence for reducing male-dominated cancers has been overlooked.
“Two in three (67 per cent) mouth cancers are typically diagnosed in men, and many of these could be because of HPV. Every child would benefit from the HPV vaccine; it is not only a vaccine for girls, but it is also vital that boys have it too.”
Rachel Parsons, a mother from Coventry, was diagnosed with suspected HPV mouth cancer after noticing a lump in her mouth.
All her children have since received the HPV vaccination.
Rachel said, “I wanted my boy vaccinated so he would have the same protection. I didn’t want any of them to go through what I did.
“It’s not about sleeping with a lot of people, HPV can stay dormant for years. You must explain what it really is. Young people can be more vulnerable, but it’s not always contracted through sex by being promiscuous.
“The HPV vaccine is important. If anyone has the chance to get it, they should go for it. No one should go through what I did.”
For more information visit www.mouthcancer.org