Thanks to the education efforts of health care professionals, it's common knowledge that young women ages 13 to 26 should be vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause cervical cancer. Many people don't realize that HPV is a concern for men, too. The virus can cause penile, anal, head and neck cancer and, more commonly, genital warts. The vaccine, originally approved only for women, has since been proven to be safe and effective for men. It protects them from the two strains most likely to cause genital warts.
"You can't ever reduce the epidemic of HPV unless you vaccinate the whole sexual network. That would mean boys as well," says Patricia Kissinger, a professor in the department of epidemiology at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. "Unfortunately, men are not routinely tested for it."
Kissinger says the current issue is determining who will pay for men to be vaccinated: insurance companies or individuals themselves. She says women are targeted for vaccination because HPV directly affects them more often than men. "The more dangerous (strains) that cause cervical cancer in girls aren't necessarily symptomatic — you can't see them," Kissinger says.
Each year 800 men get HPV-related penile cancer; 1,100 men get HPV-related anal cancer, and 5,700 men get HPV-related head and neck cancers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC). Kissinger says there's a push for men to be vaccinated, but the CDC hasn't officially been suggested it.
The HPV vaccine Gardisil protects against four common strains of HPV — two that cause genital warts and two that cause cancers. The two strains that cause genital warts are responsible for 90 percent of genital warts cases, according to the CDC. The vaccine prevents new infections, but it can't cure existing infections. It is delivered in a three-shot series over six months.
According to the CDC, at least 50 percent of the sexually active U.S. population will be infected with HPV at some point. The virus can be passed even when an infected partner shows no signs or symptoms. HPV is spread most commonly through vaginal and anal sex, but also can be spread through other contact and oral sex.
"Men should know that (HPV) is the No. 1 cause of cervical cancer in women," Kissinger says. "Barrier methods, notably condoms, will protect the shaft of the penis." Men can only fully protect themselves by abstaining from sex and sexual contact. If men are vaccinated, it helps reduce the spread strains that cause genital warts.
"Condoms are probably the best method of preventing if you aren't abstaining," she says.