In the social situation we’re currently living in, you would think the only vaccine men need for protection from is the Covid-19 virus. But, there’s another vaccine that men should be getting for a different virus and many are not. This other vaccine offers more than 90% protection from a virus that can cause cancers of the head and neck, penile and anal cancers. That vaccine is the HPV vaccine, the one that will protect men from the sexually transmitted virus known as HPV or human papillomavirus, the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States spread by intimate skin-to-skin contact.
Facts on HPV-related cancers
But what a minute – isn’t the HPV vaccine only for women to prevent cervical cancer since HPV is the primary cause of that cancer? Yes it is, but men 45 years of age and younger, also need this vaccine to protect them from potentially disfiguring or fatal cancers too. The HPV vaccine was designed to prevent reproductive warts and cancers caused by this virus. It’s a vaccine that’s actually a cancer prevention vaccine for men as well as women. In fact, cancer found in the throat is now leading cancer caused by HPV – and 80% of those diagnosed are men.
It is estimated that 85 percent of all sexually active people contract HPV in their lifetime. The vast majority of people infected with HPV will clear the virus from their body in about two years with few if any symptoms. But there is a small percentage of people, including men, who do not, putting them at risk of being diagnosed with genital or head and neck cancer.
Attention to this issue was raised at the annual 2021 American Society for Clinical Oncology meeting. Discussed was the fact that HPV led to an alarming five-fold increase of head and neck cancers in young men from 2001 to 2017. The problem is believed to stem from the association between HPV infection and the delay between the time a man is infected with HPV and the development of cancer.
This has been a brewing problem for decades. In 2018, 43 million HPV infections were diagnosed, many among people in their late teens and early 20s. The infection is spread by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus. Even if a person infected with HPV has no symptoms, they can still pass on HPV to someone else. While having multiple sex partners can certainly increase the likelihood of contracting HPV, even people who’ve had sex with only one person (someone infected with HPV), can become infected with it. And there are many different types of HPV; some that cause fairly minor health problems such as genital warts to major, life-threatening problems like cancers.
That’s why anyone who is sexually active can spread HPV making it important for both men and women to be vaccinated for this virus. The vaccine is recommended for children as early as ages 11 or 12 and is approved for adults up to age 45.
However, researchers with the 2010-2018 National Health Interview Surveys found that just 16% of men who were 18 to 20 years old had received at least one dose of the HPV vaccine at any age. In comparison, 42% of women in the same age bracket had gotten at least one shot of the vaccine. The vaccine requires three doses total and in this same study, less than a third of men had received all three vaccine doses.
Why men should get the HPV vaccine
There are many reasons why men will be benefitting their long-term health by getting the HPV vaccine. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center provides five reasons to encourage more men why they need this vaccine:
- HPV is causing men to get cancers in large numbers
More than four out of every ten cases of cancer caused by HPV are in men. From 2013 to 2017, there were approximately 25,000 cases of HPV-associated cancers in women and 19,000 in men, according to the CDC.
- HPV causes 70% of head and neck cancers in the U.S.
There are now more cases of head and neck cancers than cervical cancer in the U.S. In fact, head and neck cancers are four times more common in men than women.
Here are some danger signs of head and neck cancer that should be evaluated by a physician:
- A sore throat that never seems to go away
- Unexplained weight loss
- Persistent ear pain
- Difficulty or pain swallowing
- A lump in your neck that lasts for more than a couple of weeks
- Persistent sores or white or red patches on the tongue, throat, or lining of the mouth
- An HPV cancer test does not exist for men
Unlike women who are highly recommended to have an annual Pap smear test to screen for early-stage cervical cancer, there is no such screening test for penile, anal, or head and neck cancers in men.
- HPV-related cancers increase with age
The longer a person lives, the greater their chance of developing cancer. Men are living longer than before providing cancer more time to develop. By being vaccinated against HPV, protects men from HPV-related cancers in the short and long-term
- The HPV vaccine is safe for both sexes
The HPV vaccine was first approved for use in 2006 for women to prevent cervical cancer and then in 2009 to prevent HPV-related cancers in men. Before its approval, the vaccine went through rigorous safety testing. Like all vaccines, there can be side effects but the majority are minor like arm soreness or fatigue. Since the vaccine was approved, more than 100 million doses have been given.
All men under the age of 45 should discuss with their doctor their own personal advantages of whether or not to get the HPV vaccine. However, because of its highly transmissible nature, the more people who are vaccinated against this virus, the greater protection amongst all sexually active people preventing its spread.