Dear Healthy Men: At a recent annual checkup, my 11-year-old son’s pediatrician recommended that my son get vaccinated against HPV. I always thought HPV was something that affected only women and girls, so I was a little surprised. Plus, my son is nowhere near being sexually active (whew!). Why would a doctor recommend it for boys?
A: Great question. There are a lot of reasons to vaccinate boys against HPV — especially before they become sexually active.
— Human papillomavirus (HPV) causes more than 37,000 cases of cancer each year in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These include cancers of the cervix, vulva, and vagina in females, the penis in males and the anus and back of the throat in both males and females. Forty-two percent of HPV-caused cancers occur in males, and the HPV vaccine can prevent up to 90% of them, says the CDC.
— There are more than 200 strains of HPV, 14 of which are considered "high risk." In a study analyzing data from 2011-2014 (the most recent data available), men were 23% more likely than women to have high-risk genital HPV and over five times more likely to have high-risk oral HPV. Again, being vaccinated can greatly reduce the risk of developing either of those diseases.
— In the U.S. alone, HPV also causes around 400,000 cases of genital warts annually, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The vaccines are nearly 100% effective in preventing them.
— It’s harder to screen for HPV-caused cancers in boys. Current HPV tests are only approved for those with a cervix and can be used alone or along with a Pap test to determine cervical cancer risk. But there are no similar tests to catch early-stage cancers in males.
— While it’s well known that HPV causes most cervical cancers (which affect only females), two Australian researchers have found what they believe is a causal relationship between HPV and prostate cancer.
— The CDC says 11-to-12-year-olds should get HPV vaccines because that’s when our immune systems are the strongest, meaning that they’ll produce more antibodies that will protect them against later exposure to HPV than if they waited until they were older. And since HPV infections are almost always spread through sexual contact, it’s good to get kids vaccinated before they become sexually active. In fact, the vaccine is safe — and recommended — for kids as young as 9, per the CDC.
I’m glad to hear your son’s pediatrician recommended the HPV vaccine. In 2006, when it was introduced, it was recommended exclusively to girls, which led many people to believe (as you did) that HPV was a female-specific disease. It also reinforced the idea that boys don’t have to worry about HPV, and, as a result, left them unnecessarily unprotected.
It wasn’t until five years later (2011) that providers acknowledged the silliness of trying to weed only half of the garden and began offering it to boys as well. Today, experts recommend that everyone under 26 get vaccinated.
Nevertheless, the overall vaccination rate worldwide is nowhere near where it should be. A study published earlier this year found that the global vaccination rate is just 12% to 15% — and there’s a huge gender gap (only 47 countries currently offer the vaccine to males), with girls nearly four times more likely than boys to be fully vaccinated (15% vs. 4%).
In the U.S., we’re a lot better off on both fronts. Overall, 58.5% of out 13-to-15-year-olds have been fully vaccinated, 60% of females and 57.1% of males, according to the National Cancer Institute.
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