Boys & HPV Vaccine
Should Your Son Get the HPV Vaccine?
U.S. health officials now recommend vaccinating boys against human papillomavirus (HPV), a move sure to add fire to an already very heated debate over the controversial vaccine. Here's what you need to know.
By Allison Takeda
Don't Miss This
Sign Up for OurHealthy LivingNewsletter
Thanks for signing up!You might also like these other newsletters:
WEDNESDAY, Oct. 26, 2011 -Young boys should be vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV), according to new recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP).
The committee announced yesterday morning that it endorses the “routine vaccination of boys 11 to 12 years old” to protect against certain cancer-causing strains of HPV. It also supports vaccinating boys as young as 9 and up to 21, but as is the case with girls, the vaccine is most effective before first sexual contact.
Previously, the CDC recommended routine vaccination only for girls; its stance on giving the vaccine to boys was “permissive,” meaning that young men ages 9 to 26 were free (but not overtly encouraged) to get vaccinated at the discretion of their parents and physicians.
The ACIP hopes that the new guidelines will encourage increased rates of vaccination among both girls and boys, which until now have fallen far short of expectations. Currently, less than half of girls ages 13 to 17 have gotten even one dose of the vaccine, and less than a third have gotten all three. In contrast, about two-thirds of teens have had recommended shots for meningitis and for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough). “There's been a disappointing uptake among teen girls,” Anne Schuchat, MD, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, said yesterday during a press conference about the ACIP’s recommendation for HPV vaccination in boys. “HPV vaccination of males offers an opportunity to decrease the burden of HPV-related disease in both males and females.”
Whether the new guidelines actually have any effect on vaccination rates remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: The HPV debate isn’t going to be resolved anytime soon.
Here, a guide to how the virus - and the vaccine - affect boys and young men.
The Health Risks of HPV in Boys
HPV is by far the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, affecting an estimated 20 million Americans, according to the CDC. There are more than 40 strains of HPV that can infect the genital area, 13 of which are considered “high risk,” or likely to progress to cancer if not cleared by the immune system. The most common cancer associated with the virus is cervical cancer, which affects approximately 12,000 women in the United States every year. Some 70 percent of these cases are caused by HPV.
Because of its link to cervical cancer, HPV is often perceived as a women’s health threat. It is, but recent research shows that men are vulnerable too. Men obviously are not at risk for cervical cancer - but they are at risk for certain other HPV-related cancers, and they help propagate the spread of the virus. One study, published earlier this year inThe Lancetand funded by the National Cancer Institute, found that as many as 50 percent of men may have some form of HPV - and the majority don’t even know it.
“Anyone can come to the table - or to bed - with the virus,” says Mary Rosser, MD, a physician specializing in women’s health at Montefiore Medical Center in Larchmont, N.Y. “It’s highly contagious, and men can pass it back and forth just as well as women can.”
They’re not just carriers, either. HPV has been shown to cause various diseases in men, too, including genital warts and oropharyngeal (oral and throat) cancer - the latter of which is on the rise, specifically among males. Data from the National Cancer Institute study shows that HPV is responsible for as many as two-thirds of cancers of the tongue and tonsils, 80 percent of which occur in men. And research published earlier this month inThe Journal of Clinical Oncologyfound that the number of head and neck cancers that tested positive for HPV increased 225 percent between 1988 and 2004.
If the trend continues, researchers said, the incidence of such cancers will surpass that of cervical cancer by 2020, and the people affected will be mostly men. Currently some 5,600 men develop HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer annually, compared with only 1,500 women.
Other data from the CDC shows that HPV also puts men at higher risk for anal and penile cancers. In the United States alone, there are 400 new cases of HPV-associated penile cancer and 1,500 new cases of HPV-associated anal cancer in men every year. These cancers occur less frequently than cervical cancer, but they’re also much harder to detect. While annual Pap smears can help prevent and catch early problems with a woman’s cervix, no such routine screening tests exist for penile and anal cancers. As a result, they’re often found after they’ve already progressed to later stages, when they’re more difficult to treat.
“Vaccinating boys and young men against HPV would help protect them from developing these diseases in the first place,” says Mallika Marshall, MD, Everyday Health’s medical director and a physician at the Massachusetts General Hospital Chelsea Urgent Care Clinic. “[It could also] help prevent [HPV] transmission between girls and boys.”
If recent research pans out, more widespread HPV vaccination may even reduce the risk of heart disease, the number-one killer of men and women in the United States. A new study in theJournal of the American College of Cardiologyfound that women with HPV were more than twice as likely to develop cardiovascular problems as women who didn’t have the virus. More evidence is needed to confirm the link - and to see whether it applies to men, too - but if the initial data holds up, HPV may be even deadlier than we previously thought.
The Debate Over the HPV Vaccine
Myths and misconceptions about the vaccine have made it a hot-button issue among both politicians and parents in recent years. During one of the September Republican presidential debates, Tea Party hopeful Rep. Michele Bachmann caused a stir when she claimed that the vaccine could lead to “mental retardation,” a statement that has “absolutely no scientific validity,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Concerned parents have also circulated stories of horrific side effects - and even deaths - but medical experts stand behind the safety of the vaccine, which is monitored by both the FDA and the CDC and was considered carefully by the ACIP.
The committee reviewed safety data at multiple meetings and had an extensive discussion about that," said Dr. Schuchat. “We don't believe there is any evidence to support severe life-threatening outcomes associated with this particular vaccine.”
The most common adverse reactions associated with the vaccine are relatively minor and similar to side effects from other vaccines. They include: pain or swelling around the injection site, slight fever, headache, nausea , fainting, and muscle aches. On rare occasions, people have experienced blood clots or Guillain-Barre syndrome (a rare but potentially disabling disorder resulting in muscle weakness), but further investigation reveals that other factors may have been to blame in those cases.
“There have been a few widely publicized cases ofpossiblesignificant side effects, but experts have tested the vaccine on thousands of people, and it’s been administered to millions, and the risk of serious reactions is incredibly small,” Dr. Marshall says.
“It’s just like with any vaccine,” adds Dr. Rosser. “It’s absolutely safe - and effective.”
Rosser’s statement brings up another common concern regarding the use of the vaccine in boys: whether it actually works to prevent infection. Two vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, have been approved by the FDA to protect against HPV - but only one (Gardasil) has been approved for use in boys. Some questions have been raised about its effectiveness, but a recent study published in theNew England Journal of Medicinefound that it was 90 percent effective in protecting against HPV and genital warts in older teenage boys and young men.
Another argument against administering the vaccine to children is that it may prompt questions or premature sexual curiosity. “Some parents worry that by vaccinating their children against HPV, they’re sending the message that it’s okay to have sex at a young age,” says Marshall, herself a mom of three young children, including two sons and a daughter.
“I understand the concern,” Rosser adds, noting that she has two young children of her own. “The vaccine comes up when kids are 11 and 12, right around the time they’re starting puberty, and it forces parents to confront issues of their child’s sexuality. It’s uncomfortable - but we need think about our kids’ future.” Both she and Marshall point out that we already vaccinate babies and kids against hepatitis B, which can also be spread through sexual activity.
Should You Vaccinate Your Son?
Not surprisingly, the reactions to the ACIP’s new recommendations have been mixed - and passionate. Everyday Health Facebook fans, for example, took to our Wall en masse to voice their opinions about the vaccine and whether they plan to vaccinate their own sons now that CDC officials endorse it.
“I don’t agree with injecting poisons into my child or myself,” Rose Thulin wrote. “Have any of you ever read the ingredients lists for any vaccine?”
Countered Jenyfer Arnold: “This vaccine can help prevent cancer! Why would anyone refuse it?”
“I absolutely agree with the new guidelines. It’s about time emphasis is being put on males to make a change to protect themselves!” said Ebony Halfacre.
The ACIP’s recommendations, it should be noted, are not mandatory. Ultimately, it’s up to parents to decide whether their children will be vaccinated against the virus. Both Rosser and Marshall hope, however, that the new guidelines will at least encourage discussion among families and their doctors - and both also say they plan to vaccinate their kids when the time comes.
“If you ask me if I would vaccinate my children, the answer is yes,” says Marshall. “My kids are still too young, but I eventually will. To protect them against cervical and anal cancers, genital warts, and possibly help ward off heart disease and oropharyngeal cancers? Absolutely.
Video: Why my kids get the HPV vaccine: A cervical cancer survivor’s story
School Lunches Leave Students Stomachs Growling
Duffer of St George Spring 2013 Backpack Collection
Lily James has just been announced as the new face of My Burberry
MORE: 20 Things Cynthia Rowley’s Loving Now
How to Buy Beads in Bulk
How to Grow Water Lilies
Are You Having a Headache or a Migraine
STDs: What Are They and Who Gets Them
How to Watch YouTube on Roku
How to Assemble a Crib
Skinny Ms. Snack Round-Up