Free HPV vaccinations for everyone aged 19 to 26
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a relatively unknown but highly contagious virus. An infected person will initially notice no effects, but in time the consequences can be significant because an infection can lead to cancer of the cervix, anus, vagina, labia, penis, mouth or upper throat. Vaccination has been an option for girls since 2010, and for boys since last year. Until the end of this calendar year, anyone aged 19 to 26 who is not yet protected can get themselves vaccinated free of charge.
Some 80 to 90 percent of the population will be infected with HPV at least once, and all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the virus. The types of HPV virus for which vaccination is now available account for 70 to 75 percent of these cases. Since 2010 vaccination against HPV has been an option for girls. They used to receive an invitation in the year they turned thirteen. That policy changed in 2022 when the age for girls was dropped to ten and the vaccination program was opened to boys. This step not only protects boys from getting cancer through exposure to the virus, it also helps to protect girls. Ten-years-old has been set as the vaccination age for children because at that age they are not yet sexually active. As soon as they become so, they run a very real risk of being exposed to the virus.
So why is free vaccination being extended to young people aged 18 and 26? Increasingly, research is showing that it pays to get yourself vaccinated at an older age, says Joost van der Steen, vaccination coordinator for the GGD’s Southeast Brabant region. “This is partly because you can get infected multiple times. Your body may rid itself of the virus, which is what happens in the vast majority of the cases within a year of two of infection. But that’s not to say that when you’re next infected, your body will do a similarly effective job.” If the virus isn’t cleared from the body, abnormal cells can develop and they in turn can develop into cancer cells. It can take ten to fifteen years before cancer actually develops. And so from the age of thirty, women are invited to take part in the national screening program for cervical cancer. A pap smear is carried out to detect any precancerous changes in the cells; precancerous abnormalities that could lead to cervical cancer often respond well to treatment.
For boys, a big catch-up effort is needed because their vaccination program started only last year. This is reflected in the fact that of the young people aged 19 to 26 who received a vaccination invitation in the Southeast Brabant region, almost three-quarters are men. Reaching this group is no easy matter, says Van der Steen. “It’s a common belief that this is a vaccination for girls. In the early days, the protection against cervical cancer offered by the HPV vaccination was heavily emphasized and, of course, this is true. But now that’s hampering efforts to encourage boys to come along and get vaccinated. They are inclined to think this has nothing to do with them.”
But it has everything to do with them because boys are needed to achieve group immunity, which is the aim of this large-scale vaccination campaign. What’s more, they too are at risk of developing cancer in the wake of an HPV infection. “It can cause mouth, throat, anus or penile cancer in men. We sometimes speak with urologists who treat men with penile cancer. The suffering endured by these men as a result of amputation, for example, doesn’t bear thinking about. It’s been shown that these vaccinations can help protect men against all these cancers.”
While the majority of people invited to receive the vaccinations are men, a lot of young women are also going along to the vaccination centers, as Van der Steen can confirm. “They say that the potential consequences of the virus weren’t something they gave much thought to in the past. Others say that their mother didn’t think it was necessary, or that they themselves found the idea of vaccination scary. A surprising number of girls are coming along now because the decision is theirs to make.” It also helps that the vaccination has been available for some time and so more is known about its long-term effects. “In the early days, all kinds of stories were doing the rounds, for example that it would give you chronic fatigue syndrome. Over time research has refuted these claims.”
In view of this, Van der Steen says there’s no reason to worry about there being any side effects of the vaccination, which offers immediate protection against types 16 and 18 of the HPV virus. It also offers cross-protective immunity against other types. Although, it must be said, there are hundreds of types of this virus. And so it’s important, says Van der Steen, that women (from thirty years of age) take part in the national screening program for cervical cancer. This includes the young women who are currently getting vaccinated. “This is because the vaccine offers no protection against any type of the virus they may already be carrying, and since many of them are already sexually active, this is a possibility.”
Young women who are already partially vaccinated need only one new jab. Anyone who has never been vaccinated against HPV gets two. “The two jabs are given six months apart. The vaccinations will continue to be free for the whole of this calendar year. If you have to pay, each jab will cost you about 140 euros. So it’s smart to get your first vaccination before the end of June.”
Anyone born between January 1st, 1996 and December 31st, 2003 can get vaccinated free of charge. International students in this age group are also welcome.The vaccination center on Eindhoven’s Antoon Coolenlaan is open on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday of every week, and on Saturday in even-numbered weeks. No appointment is needed if you arrive between 8.45 hrs and 16.30 hrs.