Should men get the HPV vaccine?

It’s been more than two years since Health Canada approved Gardasil, a vaccine that protects against the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). Today, Gardasil is approved for women aged 9 to 26, and by now, countless young women have received the vaccine. This fall, for example, Ontario is once again offering it to all Grade 8 girls, free of charge. Supporters of the HPV vaccine say it’s a great step forward for women’s health: after all, the virus causes between 90 and 98 per cent of all cervical cancer, which is the second most common cancer among females worldwide.

But it’s not just women who are at risk from HPV, which infects at least 50 per cent of sexually active women and men. In fact, some types of HPV-associated cancer are now on the rise among men. It’s got some people wondering if men shouldn’t get vaccinated, too.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released its first-ever estimate of HPV-associated cancer data in the U.S., and the results are fascinating: between 1998 and 2003, it shows, a whopping 25,000 cases of HPV-associated cancers occurred annually in 38 states and the District of Columbia. And while cervical cancers were the most common, other types were not so far behind.

Among the CDC’s findings:

– About 10,800 HPV-associated cervical cancers occurred per year.

– Almost 7,400 potentially HPV-associated head and neck cancers occurred per year. Of these, nearly 5,700 were among men, while 1,700 were among women. (Head and neck cancers include those of the oral cavity and oropharynx.)

– There were over 3,000 HPV-associated anal cancers per year, which were slightly more common among women (1,900 were in women, and 1,100 were in men).

– About 800 men developed penile cancer each year, while about 600 women developed vaginal cancers.

While cervical cancer’s connection to HPV has received the most attention, about one-quarter of HPV-linked cancers occur in men, the research shows. Significantly, oral cancers—already the second most common HPV-associated cancer—are on the rise in the U.S., especially among males. In fact, HPV is linked to about 20 to 40 per cent of oral cavity and pharynx cancers, reports ScienceDaily; of the 400,000 cases of head and neck cancer diagnosed each year around the world, about half of all patients will die from it.

In both Canada and the U.S., Gardasil is currently approved for only women and girls. Should men be vaccinated against HPV?

“We do not yet know if the vaccine is effective in boys or men,” the CDC’s website notes. “It is possible that vaccinating males will have health benefits for them by preventing genital warts and rare cancers, such as penile and anal cancer. It is also possible that vaccinating boys/men will have indirect health benefits for girls/women. Studies are now being done to find out if the vaccine works to prevent HPV infection and disease in males. When more information is available, this vaccine may be licensed and recommended for boys/men as well.”

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