The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is not just for girls anymore. In fact, it’s more important than ever that boys get vaccinated too.
HPV is a group of more than 150 viruses that can lead to genital warts as well as cancer of the anus, back of the throat, penis, cervix, and other parts of the genitals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While most people know that HPV is linked to cervical cancer in women, HPV-related throat cancer in men has actually surpassed cervical cancer as the most common HPV-related cancer in the United States. And, while they are more rare, about 91 percent of anal cancers and 63 percent of penile cancer are caused by HPV.
Here are five key facts you should know about HPV and the HPV vaccine, along with steps you can take to protect yourself or the boys and men in your life from HPV-related disease.
1. HPV is common in boys
There are about 14 million new cases of HPV every year, and many of those are in boys. HPV is very common, and it can be spread through oral, vaginal, and anal sex, even when someone doesn’t have any symptoms. While HPV itself doesn’t immediately cause cancer, it can cause changes in the body’s cells that can lead to cancer, according to the CDC. But what makes HPV-related cancers so different from others is that it can be prevented with a vaccine.
2. The HPV vaccine is recommended for boys
Since 2009, the CDC has recommended that boys also get the HPV vaccine to help prevent HPV infections.
The current recommendation from the CDC is that boys should receive the first shot of the two-dose HPV (vaccine Gardasil 9) at age 11 or 12, with the follow-up vaccine within a year. If the vaccine series is not started prior to age 15, three doses of the vaccine should be given. If for some reason the vaccine isn’t started at the recommended age, men up to age 21 can still receive the two-dose vaccine. After age 22, the CDC recommends a three-dose series for gay men, bisexual men, men who have sex with men, men with compromised immune systems, and transgender people. The vaccine may also be given to young boys ages 9 and 10 for a variety of reasons.
Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration announced in October 2018 that the vaccine is now approved for all men (and women) up to 45 years old.
3. Early HPV vaccination is key for prevention
Some wonder why the HPV vaccine should be recommended so early when many boys may not even be considering having sex yet. But studies show us that boys are more likely to have more oral sex partners and have earlier oral and vaginal sex than girls. Since HPV can be contracted at any age, and it typically has no symptoms until it’s led to cancer, getting the vaccine prior to any sexual contact is vital.
The HPV vaccine is available for boys and men in the United States, Canada, Austria, and Australia. Other countries have avoided it, saying that it is not cost-effective to vaccinate boys. However, there is a cost burden of treating HPV-related cancers in men. We also lack an effective screening test for HPV-related throat cancer at present, so many argue that we should provide the vaccine to men to protect them. A high rate of HPV vaccination in girls does protect boys via "herd immunity," but this is not 100%. Many experts feel that the increasing prevalence of HPV-related cancers in men warrants vaccination of all children.
4. There are very few side effects from the HPV vaccine
There is a low rate of side effects with this vaccine. The most common side effects are minor and include:
- Fainting after the shot, which may occur after any shot
- Irritation at the site of the injection
5. There is no test for HPV in boys or men
There is no approved HPV test for men, according to the CDC. HPV testing is currently performed only as part of cervical cancer screening. Most HPV diagnoses in men are made only after HPV-related disease, like genital warts or cancer, has been detected.
So, to recap, if you are between the ages of 9 to 21, you should get the HPV vaccine. If you’re under age 45, there may also be reasons to get the vaccine if you haven’t gotten it before. Doing so has few risks, and it can help prevent you and your sexual partners from contracting HPV and developing cancer later in life.
The bottom line: How to prevent HPV
HPV prevention takes a two-pronged approach. The best prevention is going to be the HPV vaccine, but even with the vaccine, the use of condoms and dental dams is still recommended. Talk to your doctor if you have further concerns about HPV.