Myths about the HPV vaccine for boys

A vaccination policy statement released by the American Academy of Pediatrics has already drawn fire from a number of anti-vaccine groups, specifically for its endorsement of vaccination against HPV infection in boys.

First, let’s examine exactly what the AAP added to its guidelines regarding the HPV4 and HPV2 vaccines: “HPV4 may be administered in a 3-dose series to males 9 through 18 years of age to reduce their likelihood of acquiring genital warts.”

That’s it.  The AAP simply endorses the use of the HPV4 vaccine in young males to reduce their likelihood of acquiring those strains of HPV, which may present as genital warts in males (although are often asymptomatic).  However, females contract HPV of all strains from males, and reducing the number of males infected will indirectly protect females from developing cervical cancer.

I’d like to share with you a comment from a prominent news organization’s coverage of the release:

Great! More tobacco science trying to push poisons into your body instead of promoting heathy [sic] living. By the way isn’t the HPV vaccine for cervical cancer? Boys do not have a cervix! Also, read the package insert and find out that this HPV vaccibe [sic] does not protect from cervical cancer at all! However, if you already have the human papillomavirus then it will accelerate the disease! Wake up people. Only if this post would actually make it onto this website!

Spelling errors aside, this individual displays several common misconceptions, the largest of which I’d like to dispel, because I can foresee this becoming an issue in the coming days.

The major “selling point” for the HPV vaccine is indeed its claim to prevent cervical cancer in women – so why should boys be vaccinated if they “do not have a cervix”?  Boys may not have a cervix, but they have a perfectly suitable vehicle for transmitting HPV to females, and that’s where the connection lies.

The connection between certain strains of HPV and cervical cancer are clear and established.  I’ve been asked why physicians consider certain, seemingly-unrelated, factors as risks for cervical cancer:

  • Early age of first intercourse
  • Multiple sexual partners
  • Unprotected sex

These three factors (and others) are directly related to risk of HPV infection, and therefore predispose to cervical cancer, because HPV is so common.  There is perhaps no better direct connection between a virus and a subsequent malignancy, and there is no other vaccine that has the potential to protect so many individuals from a life-altering diagnosis of cancer.

It’s a good idea to vaccinate people, male and female, before they’re exposed and can spread the virus.

James Haddad is a medical student who blogs at Abnormal Facies.

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