The Health Information and Quality Authority has begun a public consultation process focused on determining whether the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination programme should be extended to boys.

The vaccine is currently only offered to girls aged 12-13 in their first year of secondary school from the Health Service Executive’s National Immunisation Office.

However, HIQA has been assessing whether that availability should be extended to include boys of the same age and stage at a cost of around €2m a year.

HPV is most commonly known as the cause of cervical cancer in women, but it can also be responsible for cases of anal, penile and oropharyngeal cancers.

In total, 539 cases of cancer associated with HPV infection are diagnosed each year in patients in Ireland.

HPV infection is also responsible for causing genital warts, with 90% of these caused by HPV types that are included in the vaccine.

Nine out of ten people will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives.

At the request of the Department of Health, HIQA carried out a health technology assessment reviewing both the likely clinical and cost effectiveness of an extension to the vaccination programme to boys.

Its draft findings, which are now open for public consultation, found vaccination of both sexes would have considerable health benefits.

Austria, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US already offer the vaccine to both girls and boys.

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"From reviewing the evidence, HIQA has found that the HPV vaccine is safe and is effective at preventing infection with HPV," said Dr Máirín Ryan, HIQA's Director of Health Technology Assessment and Deputy Chief Executive.

"Extending the current girls-only HPV immunisation programme to include boys would reduce HPV related disease in males and females in Ireland, improving patient-related outcomes and reducing mortality from HPV-related cancers."

The HSE began offering the vaccine here in 2010 and while uptake climbed to as high as 86.9% in 2014-15, it then dropped to 72.3% in 2015-16 and 51% in the 2016-2017 period.

The vaccination programme suffered from negative publicity after opponents of the vaccine raised safety concerns about its use.

Many in the medical and scientific community have said those concerns are not justified by the facts.

Efforts to rejuvenate confidence in the vaccine appear to be working and earlier this year the HSE said national uptake had climbed back to around 62%.

The public can make submissions on the HIQA draft report on extending the vaccination programme until 7 September, after which the completed document will be submitted to the authority's board and then to the Minister for Health and Health Service Executive.

In a statement REGRET, which provides support to girls who it claims suffered adverse reactions and long-term debilitating side effects following the HPV vaccine, said it would extend its support to boys if the vaccine programme is widened.

It said it continues to call on the Government to set up an independent investigation to establish what happened to the girls following the vaccine, in order to identify those susceptible of suffering an adverse reaction so that they can be eliminated from the vaccination programme.

REGRET says it has also repeatedly requested that the HSE include the Patient Information Leaflet as supplied by the manufacturer with the school pack provided to parents.