Some refer to the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine as the cervical cancer vaccine. As a parent or caregiver, you might think, ‘why would I need to give that vaccine to my son?’ But, Nathan Boonstra, MD, UnityPoint Health says the HPV vaccine is also for boys and will help safeguard their futures. According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 11,000 men get cancers caused by HPV each year, and that number is on the rise.
What is HPV?
Nearly everyone has had HPV at some point in their life. Normally, the body will take care of the virus and heal itself, as with any other virus. Dr. Boonstra says there are over 100 types of HPV, but not all are equally dangerous. In fact, HPV is the virus that causes warts on our hands and feet. But, it also causes genital warts and can lead to cancers in both men and women.
How Does HPV spread?
“The most common way HPV is transmitted is through sexual transmission,” Dr. Boonstra says. “However, it’s important to point out this isn’t the same kind of sexual transmission you think about with other sexually transmitted diseases like chlamydia or gonorrhea, which are passed through sexual fluid. HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact, basically. It can also be transmitted with oral to genital contact, as with oral sex, or even oral to oral contact, with kissing.
When Should Boys and Girls Get the Vaccine?
“We give the vaccine to boys and girls at 11 or 12 for a couple reasons. One, we want everyone immunized before they become sexually active and can contract the HPV virus. Any time you immunize, you want to do it well before exposure. Research also shows the vaccine is more effective at developing antibodies in this age group,” Dr. Boonstra says.
If you don’t get the vaccine at 11 or 12, it’s FDA approved for men and women up to the age of 26. However, Dr. Boonstra says the earlier in life you get it, the better.
Why do Parents Question the HPV Vaccine for Boys?
“I think historically the vaccine has been looked at as a vaccine for girls that helps prevent cervical cancer. Some caregivers think boys can get it too, but it’ll just help prevent the transmission of HPV and it’s not as big of a deal. That’s a poor way to look at it. Because, a third of HPV-related cancers are in men. That’s going to be largely head and neck cancers,” Dr. Boonstra says.
Currently, Dr. Boonstra says the number of boys and girls getting the vaccine, as recommended, is lower than other vaccines given at 11 and 12. He says females who are up-to-date with the HPV vaccine is around 50 percent, nationally. For boys, it’s much lower, around 38 percent. Dr. Boonstra says the TDAP and the meningococcal vaccine rates are close to 80 percent.
Is the HPV Vaccine Safe?
“The vaccine has an extremely good safety profile. It’s likely one of the best studied vaccines, in terms of safety, because developers knew it would be under a lot of scrutiny. There is a stigma anytime you deal with things that are sexually transmitted,” Dr. Boonstra says.
What Kinds of Cancer Does HPV Cause?
Dr. Boonstra says the kinds of cancer HPV causes originate in places the virus likes to live, such as the cervix, vagina, penis, anus and throat. HPV targets the mucus membranes, which is a layer of cells that lines the body parts with openings to the external environment. Dr. Boonstra says HPV usually spreads during younger years, but doesn’t often turn into cancer until a person is in their 40s or 50s. That’s why it’s important to get the vaccine when it’s recommended.
What are the HPV Symptoms in Men?
Dr. Boonstra says there aren’t usually any symptoms from HPV until it develops into warts or cancer. While women have cervical cancer screenings, there are none for men. The CDC identifies these signs and symptoms in men.
- Genital warts. One or more growths on the penis, testicles, groin, thighs or in/around the anus. Warts can be single, grouped, raised, flat or cauliflower-shaped.
- Anal Cancer. May include anal bleeding, pain, itching or discharge. Swollen lymph nodes in the anal or groin area are common. There are also often changes in bowel habits, or the shape of your stool.
- Penile Cancer. First signs include changes in color, skin thickening or build-up of tissue on the penis. Later signs include a growth or sore on the penis. It’s usually painless, but can be painful and bleed.
- Head & Neck Cancer. Sore throat or ear pain that doesn’t go away, constant coughing, pain or trouble swallowing or breathing, weight loss, hoarseness or voice change.
“I have a friend who had head and neck cancer from HPV, and while—fortunately – he’s a survivor, it had a huge impact on his quality of life. It’s an awful thing to go through. It is really a great investment and gift to give an adolescent the vaccine and reduce their cancer risk,” Dr. Boonstra says.
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