HPV doesn't just impact women. While most research to date has been female-focused (likely due to alarming rates of cervical cancer), a new study finds that it impacts both sexes in a big way. If you have sex, male or female, you have a 75 percent chance of contracting human papilloma virus over your lifetime. Many people won’t find out they have the virus until years later — or they may never know — because it’s often asymptomatic and goes dormant. However, HPV is the most prominent cause of genital warts, and it’s directly responsible for 91 percent of anal, 63 percent of penile, and 72 percent of oral and throat cancers.
Data published in JAMA Oncology reveals for the first time just how many U.S. men have HPV right now. According to a nationwide survey of 18- to 59-year-olds, 45 percent of guys currently carry this virus. However, the youngest men — the 18- to 22-year-olds, who likely have less sexual experience and are more apt to have been vaccinated — skew this average way low. Looking at a few of the older groups, HPV rates among 28- to 32-year-olds are an eyebrow-raising 51 percent, while a sky-high 60 percent of 58- and 59-year-olds have the virus.
This study also revealed that only 11 percent of males get vaccinated for HPV, a much lower rate than that of females. That’s mainly because in 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started recommending the HPV vaccine for all girls at age 11 in an effort to curb cervical cancer, also caused by HPV. Yet it wasn’t until 2011 that the CDC began advising boys to get immunized to prevent penile, anal, and oropharyngeal cancers, which usually develop later in life.
"This is not an STD vaccination — it’s a cancer vaccination. HPV is so ubiquitous that we need to focus not on the virus itself but the consequences of having it.”
Among the older men who get these cancers, “we don’t think these are new HPV infections,” says Dr. Jasmine Han, lead investigator and chief of gynecological oncology at Womack Army Medical Center in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. “Most likely, these men got HPV when they were younger but their immune systems were able to clear it. As we age, our immune systems get weaker, so the virus can get reactivated, sometimes leading to cancer.”
Based on data from girls who’ve been vaccinated, there is solid proof that this prevention strategy works. According to a study published in Pediatrics in 2016, among females ages 14 to 34, HPV rates have dropped from 12 percent down to 4 percent since 2006. Today, only 2 percent of sexually active 14- to 24-year-old females who’ve been vaccinated have HPV, compared to 17 percent of those who haven’t gotten the shots. The reason any immunized women have the virus is likely because they contracted it before getting the vaccine.
Still, Han says HPV vaccination rates, for guys as well as girls, are much lower than they should be. “This is particularly because of lack of public awareness,” she explains. “Unlike tetanus shots or the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, which school systems mandate, the HPV vaccine is entirely patient- and physician-driven.” In other words, it’s up to parents to haul their tweens to the doctor for these shots — a scary notion for those who’d rather not picture their babies having sex someday.
But to protect against this almost-inevitable infection and the serious diseases that can result, “we need to emphasize that this is not an STD vaccination — it’s a cancer vaccination,” Han says. “HPV is so ubiquitous that we need to focus not on the virus itself but the consequences of having it.”
Since the push for male vaccination is so new, chances are you’re old enough to have missed your window. The CDC only recommends this preventive measure until age 26. By that point, it’s assumed you’ll have been intimate with enough partners to make it too late to prevent HPV. In fact, if you’ve been sexually active for years, Han says there’s not much point to getting tested for the virus.
If you’re past your mid-twenties and this news makes you feel helpless against HPV, well, you kind of are. On a positive note, the male cancers caused by this virus are all relatively rare and quite treatable, so the very best thing you can do is follow healthy habits that promote a strong immune system. And if you have children, make absolutely certain they get vaccinated in middle school so that the next generation can have one less health scare to worry about.
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