New treatments, new trials, new recommendations, vaccinations being rolled out, new legislation and allergy pen shortages: 2018 was a busy year for medicine. 

Below, we've compiled some of our medicine news articles from the past 12 months:

A Pill to 'Cure' Hangovers: How Would It Work?

May 2018 - Many of us will have experienced the symptoms of a hangover at some point in our lives; the unquenchable thirst, pounding headache and sensitivity to light and sound. But aside from these, consuming alcohol to excess can also pose more serious health problems, such as breathing issues, an irregular heart rate, and alcohol poisoning.

Research into a potential new treatment that would help to reduce these effects hit the headlines last week. Yunfeng Lu, a chemical engineering professor at the University of California, has been experimenting on drunk mice to find an antidote for alcohol intoxication.

What does the treatment do?

Prof. Lu’s antidote contains three natural enzymes that are found in the human liver: alcohol oxidase, catalase, and aldehyde dehydrogenase. These enzymes help the body process alcohol faster, so that people could potentially enjoy alcohol without the adverse after effects. Prof. Lu also states that this antidote opens up the possibility of creating a lifesaving therapy for alcohol overdose victims in A&E.

To conduct the experiment, the enzymes were wrapped in nano capsules and inserted into the veins of inebriated mice. The study reported that the blood alcohol level of the mice that received treatment dropped by almost half (45%) in four hours (compared to the test subjects that received no treatment).

There was also a reduced concentration of acetaldehyde, which is a toxic, carcinogenic compound that causes headaches and vomiting after drinking. It is produced during alcohol metabolism, and is usually broken down by other enzymes when a small amount of alcohol is consumed. However, the toxin remains in the body for longer when the liver cannot keep up.

Development is still in the early stages, and the research team are still looking for possible dangerous side effects. They hope that they can begin human clinical trials within a year.

What effect would the treatment have?

The development of the treatment raises a number of potentially complex questions.

Alcohol misuse costs the NHS a lot of time, money and resources. According to Alcohol Concern, there were over 1 million alcohol-related hospital admissions in the UK in 2014-15.

It’s conceivable that such a treatment, if effective and used correctly, could reduce the number of admissions related to alcohol poisoning.

But, at the same time, could such a treatment be open to misuse?

For instance, if it were readily available to buy, it could be argued that the antidote would act as a facilitator for people to drink to excess more often, in the knowledge that the body will be able to process the alcohol quicker after they had taken it.

But making the treatment available only in hospital clinics for those already inebriated and at immediate risk of health complications (and not as a pill you can buy off the shelf) presents a different situation; by this point, the patient would already be in the care of medical professionals, so in this case the hospital would still be spending money and resources.

As mentioned above, the treatment is in a very early stage of development. But it will be interesting to see how it progresses following further trials, and how it will be received by the medical community.

Current hangover prevention methods

There are various hangover cure tablets that claim to rid symptoms, however there is no concrete scientific basis to them. They function best when taken before drinking and this is thought to be mainly due to the placebo effect. In the US, the only one that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the Blowfish pill, which is a combination of aspirin and caffeine in a dissolvable tablet.

While there is no certified hangover cure currently, there are things you can do to avoid one or alleviate the symptoms:

  • The only way to completely avoid a hangover is to not drink alcohol at all.
  • Drinking a sensible amount that you know your body can cope with can also reduce the risk. Any amount over 6 units in one session is categorised as binge drinking, and increases the likelihood of a hangover.
  • If you are planning on drinking alcohol, it can help to eat a (healthy) meal that is high in carbohydrates beforehand, because the food will slow the body’s absorption of the alcohol.
  • Typically, it takes one hour for the body to process one unit of alcohol. Drinking several units quickly can therefore give your liver a lot of work to do. Alternating between alcoholic and soft drinks can help to ensure you aren’t drinking too much alcohol in a short space of time.
  • Drinking a pint of water before you go to bed can also help, as it will keep you hydrated.
  • If it is too late and you are already in a bad way the following morning, try to replace lost fluids by drinking bland liquids that can be easily digested such as water and isotonic drinks. For food, soup is a good option as it can also be easily digested.

Male Contraceptive Skin Gel to Undergo Extensive Clinical Trial

December 2018 - The American National Institutes of Health (NIH) has announced its plan for a clinical trial to take place to evaluate the efficacy of a male contraceptive gel.

The topical gel is set to be trialled by couples at sites across the globe with scientists based in Los Angeles and Seattle heading up the research.

How does the gel work?

The gel known as NES/T contains a combination of a progestin compound known as segesterone acetate, which has the brand name Nestorone, and testosterone.

The gel is applied to the back and shoulders where it is absorbed through the skin. The progestin works to block the normal testosterone production that occurs in the testes, and by doing so it reduces the sperm count to a very low or undetectable level.

The testosterone in the gel works to replace the testosterone that is no longer being produced by the testes. This allows the male user to maintain their testosterone levels so that other functions, such as sex drive, are not altered.

How will the trial take place?

The researchers are setting out to recruit 420 couples into the trial.

The men will initially use the gel for between four to 12 weeks to assess tolerability. Sperm levels will be monitored to see if they have declined to within the threshold set for contraception purposes. This period may be extended to 16 weeks, if further time is required.

At this point, if sperm levels have dropped sufficiently, the participants will enter the efficacy period where researchers will be assessing the performance of the gel at preventing pregnancies. This assessment period will last for 52 weeks and the gel will be used as the sole contraceptive method.

The male participants will remain under observation for study purposes for 24 weeks after the trial has stopped.

Why are male contraceptives being researched?

Male contraception is currently limited to condoms or a permanent vasectomy operation. There has long been a void for a safe, effective and easily reversible male contraceptive.

Women have several contraceptive options to consider but not all of them provide suitable options depending on each user’s different circumstances. Some women are unable to tolerate the current contraceptives on offer.

One of the main difficulties researchers face when looking into male contraceptives is the reversibility factor. The contraceptive needs to offer convenient pregnancy prevention but it should be easily reversible once treatment use is stopped.

Researchers are hopeful that the at-home, topical gel method will appeal to potential male users.

It is not clear when the results of the study will be available or how long it will take for this product to hit the market if it proves successful. However, the research being carried out offers new hope for men looking to take control of their reproductive health.

New Vaccine for Alzheimer’s Trialled in Mice Produces Encouraging Results

November 2018 - Alzheimer’s disease is the most well-known and most common type of age-related dementia. Currently, there is no effective treatment for the disease, which starts off with mild memory loss and can lead to the point where daily activities are severely disrupted.

New results from vaccine research, conducted by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre, suggests that the onset of the condition could be delayed by several years or more. These findings could now lead to a human trial in the next stage of this vaccine being developed.

What did the study involve and what were the findings?

The vaccine used in the study focussed on two specific proteins which are thought to contribute towards the development of Alzheimer's: amyloid-beta and tau. It contained a DNA catalyst that generated the production of these proteins; which worked to encourage the immune system of the mice to develop antibodies to them. This then allowed the immune system to keep these proteins under control.

It is thought that when these two peptides are accumulated and are overproduced in the development of Alzheimer's disease, it leads to a block in the function of proteasome (which break down unneeded proteins) and mitochondrial activity.

The two proteins tau and amyloid-peptide also lead to the formation of plaques and tangles. Plaques are caused by amyloid-beta, and refer to deposits of cells that stick together and prevent nerve cells’ ability to send messages, and tangles are caused by tau where nerve cells become tangled.

The data showed that there was a 40% reduction in the amyloid-beta peptide and a 50% reduction in tau. As well as the immune response being effective, there was no adverse response from the mice.

Previous studies have been undertaken with the knowledge that protein build up could be prevented, however when the vaccine was tested, it caused inflammation in the human brain for some of the participants making it unsafe to use.

What does it mean for Alzheimer's?

There has been some debate about the approaches taken to finding a vaccine for Alzheimer's disease, as other researchers have focused on creating a vaccine to specifically target the two responsible proteins, rather than encouraging the body to create antibodies as an immune response. This technique is called passive immunisation, whereas the method used for this study is referred to as active immunotherapy.

Even further down the line, after a vaccine has been developed, researchers hope that tests will be developed to be able to spot tangles and plaques caused by amyloid-beta and tau. This would allow treatment to begin before the presentation of symptoms, and further stop the progression of alzheimer’s disease.

It can take some time for a human trial to begin, so these results do not suggest that a a vaccine will be ready soon, but the indications from this study are encouraging that a vaccine could be developed at some point in there future.

Where can I find out more about Alzheimer’s?

If you’re concerned about Alzheimer's or want to know more about the condition, you can find helpful information on the Alzheimer’s Society website.

Health Body Recommends Increasing Access to Vitamin D Supplements

September 2017 - 

  • Vitamin D essential for bone and muscle health
  • Meeting the reference intake of 10 mcg per day can help to prevent osteoporosis and other health issues
  • Latest official guidance advises all adults to consider taking a vitamin D supplement
  • Those with a higher risk of deficiency may be able to get supplements for free through local health services
  • Vitamin D supplement Fultium D3 also available through Treated.com’s online pharmacy service

Last month, the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) updated their guidance on the use of vitamin D supplements.

They recommended that access to vitamin D supplements should be increased, and also that Public Health England should lead on the development of national campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of vitamin D.

This comes following last year’s review by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) into the subject in July 2016; in which they recommended an RNI (Reference Nutrient Intake) for those aged 4 and above of 10 mcg, or 400 IU, per day, throughout the year.

Prior to this, there were no specific reference intakes for vitamin D in the UK which related to the general population as a whole. DRVs (Dietary Reference Values) were initially set by the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy (COMA) in 1991, and reviewed in 1998.

These only specified a reference intake (at the time 7-10 mcg, or 280-400 IU per day) for those at heightened risk of deficiency (such as children under the age of 3, women who were pregnant or breastfeeding, persons over 65s, people with limited exposure to sunlight, and women or children of Asian ethnicity).

It was held that, for the majority of people aged 4 to 64, vitamin D stores acquired through natural exposure to sunlight during lighter months in summer would be sufficient to offset the shortfall during darker months in winter.

These recommendations were made considering the benefits of vitamin D on bone health. However, various research since has found that vitamin D has various other health benefits too.

The SACN in 2010 announced that they would review the reference intake guidelines for vitamin D; which led to the above recommendations being made.

Where does vitamin D come from?

Our bodies produce vitamin D when our skin is exposed to sunlight; specifically UVB rays.

Vitamin D is also naturally contained in certain foods: namely oily fish (salmon and tuna), liver, red meat and eggs.

Other foods, such as breakfast cereals, may be fortified with vitamin D.

From the middle of spring (around the end of March) to the middle of autumn (the end of September) the vitamin D we get from sunlight is typically enough to keep our stores sufficient.

However, people in the UK don’t tend to get enough vitamin D through sunlight alone during winter months, because winter sun rays do not contain a level of UVB sufficient enough for our bodies to produce it.

During winter months then, our main sources of vitamin D are those either contained in our diet, or in supplements.

Why is vitamin D important?

Vitamin D assists in the metabolism of certain minerals in the body (phosphorus and calcium), which in turn maintain strong bones and muscles.

A lack of vitamin D, also known as vitamin D deficiency, can lead to osteoporosis (where the bones lose density and become more prone to breaks), or a condition called osteomalacia (where the bones become softened).

However in recent years, many experts have come to believe that vitamin D levels could be an important factor in several other conditions too.

Research has shown that vitamin D can play a significant role in the management of blood sugar and in reducing the risk of diabetes.

Studies have also suggested that adequate levels of vitamin D could help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Do I need to take a vitamin D supplement?

Persons who are at increased risk of vitamin D deficiency are advised to take a daily supplement. As mentioned above, at risk groups include children under 4, and those who do not get a lot of sun exposure (for instance if they cover much of their skin with clothing due to their cultural or religious beliefs, spend a lot of time indoors or are housebound.)

The general population over the age of five, including adults, pregnant or breastfeeding women and the elderly, are encouraged to consider taking a supplement which helps them meet the RNI of 10 mcg (400 IU) per day, all year round.

Many may be able to get all the vitamin D they need through sunlight alone during the summer months, and from their diet during winter. In such cases taking a daily supplement of 10 mcg may not be necessary, or only necessary during winter months.

If you’re not sure, make an appointment to speak to your doctor. They will be able to determine your current levels through testing if necessary, and advise you on the right amount to take.

Is there such a thing as too much vitamin D?

Yes.

It’s unlikely that someone will exceed a safe limit through their diet and exposure to sunlight alone (although prolonged exposure to UV rays does carry other risks, so safe practices when out in the sun, such as using sun protection, should be observed).

However, it is possible to take too much vitamin D when taking supplements. Over time, this can lead to health issues and cause kidney or heart problems.

10 mcg per day is sufficient for the majority of people. Children aged 1-10 are advised not to exceed 50 mcg per day and adults not to exceed 100 mcg per day.

Where are vitamin D supplements available from?

Vitamin D supplements are widely available from pharmacies and health stores. Some lower strengths (to prevent deficiency) are available without a prescription, however higher doses (to treat deficiency) may require a prescription.

Those who are at increased risk of deficiency or who have certain medical conditions may be entitled to supplements for free via their local NHS services.

Fultium D3, a vitamin D supplement, is also available to buy from Treated.com. Those looking to buy this item or renew their prescription online can do so using our secure consultation facility. We also offer a simple repeat ordering service for those who have used our service before.

Lorcaserin: Study finds weight loss drug does not increase heart health risk

August 2018 - A new study into a weight loss drug called lorcaserin has been carried out by researchers in the US. The study was looking at the effects of the drug on serious heart problems and the findings prove promising for bringing the drug to the European market.

What is Lorcaserin?

Lorcaserin is classed as a selective serotonin 2C receptor agonist. The medication works by triggering chemicals in the brain that cause us to feel full.

It has been proven to be effective at helping overweight and obese patients lose weight and has been available in the United States, under the name Belviq, since 2013. However, its cardiovascular safety profile was previously unknown.

How was the study carried out?

The study was carried out by the TIMI Study Group and sponsored by Eisai, a Japanese pharmaceutical company. It selected 12,000 overweight or obese patients (with a BMI over 27) with atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease or multiple cardiovascular risk factors.

Patients were randomly assigned to one of two groups:

  • the lorcaserin group, which received a 10 mg dose of the drug twice daily
  • or the placebo group.  

What were the results?

Over the study period of 40 months, patients assigned to the lorcaserin test group were found to be more likely to lose 5-10% of their body weight than those in the placebo group.

Patients in the lorcaserin group also showed no higher risk of major cardiovascular events than those in the placebo group.

What do the findings tell us?

These results suggest that lorcaserin can be used to help aid weight loss without compromising cardiovascular health.

Why was the research carried out?

Obesity rates continue to increase across the globe. Being overweight is linked to numerous chronic health conditions including coronary heart disease, stroke and type-2 diabetes. Obesity can also lead to psychological problems such as depression and poor self esteem.

Eating a varied and well balanced diet combined with regular exercise are the foundations of many weight management schemes. However, some patients can benefit from the help provided by weight loss medication. There are already several weight loss treatments licensed in the UK, however, none of them are appetite suppressants like lorcaserin.

Is Lorcaserin available to buy in the UK?

Not at the moment.

The medication would still need to receive a European licence and approval from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) in order for it to become available in the UK.

Treatments currently licensed for weight loss in the UK include Orlistat (which is marketed as a generic medicine, and as Xenical and Alli), Bupropion and Naltrexone (Mysimba) and Liraglutide (Saxenda). When taking prescription weight loss medication, the user will also need to ensure they’re following a motivational weight loss plan, incorporating a calorie controlled diet and regular physical activity.

People who have been unable to lose weight on their own should always speak to their doctor. A qualified healthcare professional can offer advice and, where required, prescription treatment that suits the individual.

FDA Cracks Down on Unlicensed Viagra Vapes

October 2018 - The American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have issued a warning to a China-based e-cigarette company for committing several violations.

According to the FDA warning letter the company called ‘HelloCig’ has used unapproved new drugs and potentially misled consumers into thinking that their products have been approved by the FDA.

The unapproved drug violations refer to prescription drugs being used in e-cigarette or vape liquid. One product is called ‘E-Cialis HelloCig E-Liquid’. Cialis is the brand name for a prescription drug used to treat erectile dysfunction. It contains the active ingredient tadalafil and is approved as a tablet treatment.

The FDA have tested the E-Cialis HelloCig product and found undeclared sildenafil (the active ingredient in Viagra) and tadalafil. Failing to declare the presence of these two substances, known as PDE5 inhibitors, is a serious safety concern. In the UK these medications are only given to patients following a consultation with a doctor or pharmacist (Viagra Connect does not require a doctor’s prescription and can be issued by a pharmacist following a consultation).

Another product called ‘E-Rimonabant HelloCig E-Liquid’ was also mentioned in the letter. Rimonabant was the name of a weight loss drug that was withdrawn from sale in 2008 due to a link to serious psychiatric side effects. The FDA found the HelloCig product to contain undeclared sildenafil.

When undeclared drugs are used in a product there’s no way of knowing what quantities of the substance are present. Active ingredients such as sildenafil and tadalafil could potentially interact with other medications and lead to serious harm. The FDA writes,they are not generally recognized among scientific experts as safe and effective for their labeled uses.’

In the UK and the US prescription drugs have to go through a rigorous process before they are granted a license.

The letter dated 11th October requests a written response within 15 days otherwise further action could be taken.

Why should I avoid prescription drugs in vape form?

This story has unfolded across the pond in the US; however, should you come across any similar products here in the UK you should avoid purchasing them.

Vaping or e-cigarettes are used by smokers to inhale nicotine whilst avoiding the harmful substances carbon monoxide and tar. They can be used to help a smoker quit smoking completely. However, this method has not been approved for use with any prescription drugs, therefore their safety and efficacy cannot be guaranteed.

Erectile dysfunction is a common problem for many men and it can be safely and effectively treated using a number of methods including tablets, injections, suppositories, pumps and creams. However, vaping is not a licensed delivery method for this (or any other) type of treatment. For safety reasons it is important to avoid all counterfeit ED products

If you require treatment for ED and you are not satisfied with your current medication you should speak to your doctor. They may be able to change your medication dosage or suggest an alternative treatment method.

MDMA: Study Investigating Use in PTSD Splits Opinion

Clinical trials investigating the use of MDMA in the treatment of PTSD have led the FDA to categorise it as a 'breakthrough therapy'.

The study, from the The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and published in the Lancet Psychiatry journal this week, investigated the controlled administration of the drug in conjunction with psychotherapy.

It found that from a sample of 26 veterans and first responders (such as former police officers and fire-fighters), 68 percent of the patient’s symptoms improved to such an extent that they no longer met the clinical criteria for PTSD.

However, the authors did warn that studies are still at a relatively early stage, and were conducted with a small test pool.

A professor in mental defence Studies from King's College London also said that even though the results were interesting, they would unlikely lead to 'fundamental change' in PTSD treatment.

What did the study involve?

The participants were given various doses of the drug between 30mg, 75mg and 125mg. Those given a higher amount experienced significantly less symptoms than those given a lower amount. The doses, which were administered in two 8 hour sessions over a 12 month period, were combined with psychotherapy treatment.

Of participants taking 75mg, 86 per cent no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. 58 percent of those taking the higher dose, 125mg, no longer met the criteria, meaning it was slightly less effective than the median dose. The lowest dose, 30mg, was the least effective, with 29 percent no longer meeting the PTSD criteria following treatment.

The findings have led the drug to be categorised as a ‘breakthrough’ therapy for PTSD by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It will now move on to further clinical trials.

Previous studies into PTSD have had a high dropout rate as a result of worsening symptoms from therapy that was trauma-related, and also due to a lack of engagement with the therapy.

The authors said the study suggested that effective psychotherapy can be undertaken in conjunction with the drug to accelerate the therapeutic process, as the participants were more engaged with the treatment. The study also reported beneficial changes in personality traits at the 12-month follow up (for example a reduction in neuroticism and an increase in agreeableness and extraversion).

However, the study has several limitations.

The sample size was very small and there was no placebo included.

There were also 85 adverse events reported throughout the study. These included anxiety, headache, fatigue, insomnia and muscle tension.

Some serious events which occurred, including appendicitis, suicidal thoughts and major depression, were not attributed to the drug.

What is MDMA?

MDMA is a class A drug found in ecstasy pills or in powder form. It is used recreationally due to its capacity to induce feelings of euphoria and enhance sensory perception.

Using it carries several considerable health risks, including heart, liver and kidney problems, with many people having severe or fatal reactions to the drug.

According to FRANK, several hundred deaths were recorded between 1996 and 2014 In England and Wales where ecstasy or MDMA was a factor on the death certificate, and long-term use has also been linked with memory and mental health problems.

It is illegal in the UK, carrying a maximum prison sentence of 7 years for possession.

What is PTSD and how is it treated?

PTSD is a mental health condition that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, such as a natural disaster, sexual assault, or during combat.

Symptoms of PTSD can include:

  • reliving the event (this can happen through nightmares or flashbacks)
  • attempting to avoid anything that may trigger traumatic memories
  • having generally more negative thoughts (shame or guilt from the event)
  • and hyperarousal (being always always alert and having feelings of paranoia).

PTSD is usually treated with psychotherapy. This is done with the help of a therapist to delve into the issues surrounding the event and help to discuss the feelings and thoughts that someone may have.

There are several different types of psychotherapy used to treat PTSD:

  • Cognitive Processing Therapy: This is aligning beliefs and thoughts to behaviour and feelings; it teaches the brain skills to help someone deal with stressful situations
  • Prolonged Exposure: This is where the patient talks about the trauma repeatedly until the memories are no longer upsetting.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing: This involves focusing on sounds or hand movements whilst talking about the event. It helps the brain to process the memories with the help of added stimuli.

What do the results mean?

Promising as they may seem, it isn’t really possible to draw any concrete conclusions from these results at present. Further studies are required to determine whether or not this is a form of treatment that could ever feasibly be used in clinical practice.

Dr Neil Greenberg, a professor specialising in defence mental health at King's College London, noted that while the results did make for interesting reading, due to the small size of the study pool and the high risk of side effects, they were unlikely to have any 'fundamental change' on the services available for PTSD. 

It’s also important to note that this study was undertaken in controlled settings, under close supervision from clinical experts. For now, MDMA remains a prohibited substance. Taking it, recreationally or medicinally, can obviously be very dangerous.

If you think you may be experiencing PTSD, speak to your GP. They will be able to offer support, or refer you to a specialist for therapy where needed.

HPV Vaccine Could Lead to Drastic Reduction in Cervical Cancer

June 2018 -  New STI statistics published by Public Health England show that the number of HPV diagnoses has fallen significantly since the introduction of the HPV vaccine in 2008.

Because HPV (the human papillomavirus) is responsible for over 99% of cervical cancer cases, experts are confident that the vaccine could lead to a virtual eradication of the disease.

Recently there have been recommendations for the vaccine, offered to girls aged 12-18 by the NHS, to be offered to boys as well.

How far have HPV diagnoses fallen?

Public Health England release STI statistics in June each year.

  • Between 2009 and 2017, they observed an 89% decline in first-episode cases of genital warts in 15-17 year old girls; and a 70% decline in boys in the same age range.
  • From 2010 to 2016, HPV infections overall fell by 86% in women aged 16-21.

The HPV vaccine was brought into widespread use in the UK in 2008. With the implementation of the National HPV Immunisation Programme, it’s estimated that around four in every five young people in the UK have received the vaccination since it become available.

What is HPV?

There are thought to be over 100 strains of the human papillomavirus. Around 40 of these affect the genitals and reproductive system in particular.

Lower risk strains of the virus can cause genital warts; whereas some higher risk strains can lead to cervical cancer. Some types of HPV, on the other hand, don’t cause any symptoms at all, and the body usually clears these strains of the infection on its own.

The virus can be transmitted through close skin contact, most typically through vaginal or anal sex. It can also be passed on through oral sex.

What does the virus do?

In short, HPV causes skin cells to divide and multiply at a faster rate. For some strains, this can lead to the appearance of small, flesh-coloured growths on the skin (genital warts). In higher risk strains, this cell division can speed up to a point where cell DNA can become damaged and eventually mutate; leading to cervical cancer.

HPV can also cause cancer in other parts of the body, such as the anus, mouth and throat; meaning that men can develop cancer if they’ve been infected with a cancer-causing strain of HPV too.

HPV is very common. Cancer Research state that around 80% of people will be infected with the virus at some stage throughout their lives (although the majority of these will be symptomless and self-limiting).

There are reported, by Cancer Research, to be over 3,000 cases of cervical cancer in the UK annually. Cervical screening (which is currently recommended every three years to all women aged between 25 and 64) is thought to prevent more than 2,000 deaths from cervical cancer on a yearly basis.

How does the HPV vaccine work?

Vaccines essentially work by encouraging the body to develop a defence against a particular virus or bacteria. The introduction of a very small amount of the infecting agent enables the immune system to become familiar with it, and produce antibodies capable of fighting the infection off. So, when someone comes into contact with the virus or bacteria after immunisation, their immune system is better able to deal with it.

There are two types of vaccine: attenuated (or ‘live’) and inactivated:

  • live vaccines contain a very small number of active viral or bacterial cells, which typically have been replicated several times in a lab to reduce their potency;
  • whereas in inactive vaccines, the virus or bacteria may have been ‘killed’ through chemical treatment or being subjected to high temperatures. The viral cells are then unable to multiply and spread.

The HPV vaccine is an inactive vaccination.

It isn’t known for certain exactly how long the HPV vaccine remains effective for, although it is thought to be a minimum of 10 years.

The vaccine currently offered, Gardasil, is effective against four strains of HPV (6, 11, 16 and 18). 6 and 11 are associated with most instances of genital warts; where as 16 and 18 are thought to be responsible for around 70% of cervical cancer cases.

Gardasil doesn’t completely eliminate the risk of cancer, as other HPV strains can cause it; so screening is still advised, even for those who have been vaccinated.

Who can have the HPV vaccine?

Currently, the HPV vaccine is offered for free by the NHS to girls aged over 12 and up to the age of 18. The first dose is typically given at age 12 or 13, and then a second dose is given six months subsequently. When the vaccine is given in people aged 15 or over, a third dose may be needed as the body isn’t as sensitive to it. 

The HPV Action Group has recommended offering the vaccine to boys at 12-13 years old, and also making it freely available for boys up to the age of 18.

Men who have sex with men (MSM) aged between 16 and 45 can have the vaccination for free too. This is because they aren’t as likely to benefit from female immunisation, and as such their risk won’t be reduced.

Women who are 18 or over and straight men can still normally have the vaccine, but in most cases they won’t be able to get it for free.

Where can I get the HPV vaccine?

The National HPV Vaccination Programme has been rolled out across schools in the UK, so girls are typically offered it in year 8. Girls who have missed it can usually arrange to have the vaccination done at an alternative time, by talking to their school or to their GP.

For adults, the vaccination is offered in some GP surgeries and GUM clinics can also provide it. If you want to know more about the HPV vaccine and whether it might benefit you, speak to your GP.