Dear Doctor: Everyone talks about girls getting the HPV vaccine. But what about boys? Isn’t it just as important for boys to be vaccinated as well?
Dear Reader: You’re referring to the vaccination for human papillomavirus, or HPV. And you’re correct that the vaccination is important for both girls and boys. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, and it can lead to several types of cancer later in life. About 80 million people in the U.S. are currently infected with some type of the virus. About 14 million more, mostly teens and young adults, become infected every year.
HPV refers to a group of more than 200 related viruses. Of these, more than 40 are spread through direct sexual contact. The majority of HPV infections clear up on their own, often in about two years. The rest, however, can linger. They can lead to health problems that range from mild to life-threatening. Some cause genital warts and are considered to be low-risk. Others can cause cancers in different parts of the body. In women, certain types of HPV can cause cancer of the cervix, vulva and vagina. In fact, most cases of cervical cancer are associated with HPV. In men, the viruses can cause penile cancer. They can also lead to anal cancer, and to cancers of the mouth and throat, each of which can occur in either gender. Men can also be carriers of the types of HPV that put women at risk.
The first HPV vaccine won approval from the Food and Drug Administration in 2006. Today, an updated vaccine protects against nine strains of HPV. It has been extensively tested and found to be safe. Side effects can include swelling, pain or bruising at the injection site. Some people report temporary headache, dizziness, fever or nausea. There is no evidence that the vaccine causes any long-term side effects. When administered before an individual becomes sexually active, the vaccine has been found to be highly effective in preventing the infections it targets.
The HPV vaccine is recommended for all children and adults from ages 9 through 26. The CDC recommends a two-dose schedule of the vaccine for children younger than 15. The second dose is given six to 12 months after the first. For teens and young adults who haven’t been vaccinated before the age of 15, three doses administered over six months is recommended. Although use of the HPV vaccine has been approved for people older than 26, it’s important to talk to your health care provider to see whether it will be beneficial.
For anyone on the fence, consider this: HPV infections cause an estimated 35,000 cases of cancer in men and women each year. But since the advent of the vaccine, infections in teen girls that lead to genital warts and most HPV cancers have dropped 86%. Young adult women have seen a decline of 71%. And among vaccinated women, HPV-related precancers linked to cervical cancer have dropped 40%. As the data show, the HPV vaccine saves lives.
Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health.