An NHS trust has apologised after delaying teenagers’ first Human Papillomavirus (HPV) jabs until the middle of next year because “high demand” for Covid vaccines has disrupted its immunisation service.
Hertfordshire’s school age immunisation service was due to offer hundreds of year 8 pupils their first dose of the HPV jab this term. This has been pushed back until next summer.
NHS England said the HPV vaccinations “are not being postponed nationally” to accommodate Covid jabs, and that all providers continue to follow public health advice.
New data shows the HPV jab cuts cervical cancer cases by nearly 90 per cent, but the Covid pandemic and school closures have disrupted vaccination timetables.
Figures from October last year show that 59.2 per cent of girls and 54.4 per cent of boys had their first HPV jab in 2019-20. This compared with 88 per cent of girls the previous year.
First introduced for girls in 2008, the HPV vaccine protects against cancers caused by HPV such as cervical cancer and some mouth and throat cancers. It was extended to boys in 2019.
Children are usually offered their first jab in year 8, with the second dose six to 24 months later.
Over-15s who miss the vaccine can be jabbed any time up to their 25th birthday, but have to have three doses.
Pupils nearing 15 will be ‘prioritised’
Hertfordshire told parents last month that first doses will now be offered in summer 2022, with “completion” in the next academic year. However, those due to turn 15 soon will be “prioritised” before the summer.
According to national data, Hertfordshire has around 120 schools with around 1,000 12 and 13-year-olds on their rolls.
Covid vaccine uptake rates for 12 to 15-year-olds were higher in Hertfordshire – at 37 per cent – than the England average of 24.2 per cent, as of Tuesday.
The jabs service said delivering vaccines had been “challenging” during the pandemic, but children had been prioritised and vaccines remained available.
The NHS’s schedule allows flexibility to accommodate different vaccination programmes for teenagers, with HPV not considered a seasonal virus. The service said it was “currently working on” its HPV arrangements for East Anglia, which it also covers.
An NHS England spokesperson said: “HPV vaccinations are not being postponed nationally to accommodate Covid vaccinations and all providers, including the School Age Immunisation Service, continue to follow JCVI advice in relation to HPV, ensuring the first dose of vaccine is administered as a priority and then administering the second dose when operationally able.”
Immunisation services under ‘huge pressure’
But Geoff Barton, general secretary of school leaders’ association ASCL, said it illustrated “the huge pressure on the school age immunisation service of running the Covid vaccination programme”.
A study in the Lancet this week found a reduction in both pre-cancerous growths and an 87 per cent reduction in cervical cancer as a result of the HPV jab.
Malcolm Clark, senior cancer prevention policy manager at Cancer Research UK, said the research “shows the importance of providing access” to the jabs, so “we would hope to see the vaccination back up and running in these areas as soon as feasible”.
He added: “We are currently unaware of any other issues with distribution of the vaccine for this year’s cohort, but will continue to monitor the situation.
“While small delays are understandable due to Covid-19, the HPV vaccine is most effective when given at a younger age, so it’s important that young people are given the option to have it and that delivery gets back on track as soon as feasible.”
Lisa Hallgarten, head of policy at Brook sexual health charity, said she hoped any HPV vaccine programmes disrupted by the pandemic would “get back on track, and that there is a catch-up scheme to ensure any young people who may have missed out still receive their dose of this lifesaving vaccine as soon as possible”.
The Department for Health and Social Care was approached for comment.