The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised that boys and young men receive the vaccine against human papillomavirus, or HPV, to protect them from throat or anal cancers resulting from sexual activity. The vaccine has been available to boys before, with only about 1 percent of them receiving it. The committee’s recommendation means that insurance is more likely to cover the HPV vaccine, which is administered in three doses and costs pediatricians at least $300.
The committee recommended that boys aged 11 and 12 receive the vaccine and also recommended that males aged 13 through 21 who had not yet had all three doses receive the vaccine. Boys as young as 9 and males aged up to 22 and 26 can receive the HPV vaccine which loses its effectiveness if given after the onset of sexual activity.
HPV infections can lead to warts and also cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers in women and anal cancer in men and women. While cervical cancer rates have been declining for the past four decades, rates of head and neck cancers, with many arising from HPV infections, have been on the rise. HPV has also been linked to throat cancers in men and women, via oral sex.
While public health officials have noted its effectiveness, and despite the fact that between 75 to 80 percent of females and males in the US will be infected with HPV at some point, the HPV vaccine has been a tough sell in the US. While the committee recommended in 2006 that young women between the ages of 11 to 26 be vaccinated, vaccination rates have been disappointing. Last year, only 49 percent of adolescent girls have received the vaccine. The HPV vaccine prevents a disease that results from sexual activity, so parents considering vaccinating a child have to address the delicate issue of an adolescent becoming sexually active. In males, many of the cancers arise from oral or anal sex, but vaccinating boys is to the benefit of female partners because vaginal sex with infected males is usually the cause of cervical cancer in women.
One need look no further than the race for the Republican presidential nomination to see how the HPV vaccine has been a “source of contention,” with Texas governor Rick Perry coming under fire for his attempts to require girls to receive the vaccine and Representative Michele Bachmann being harshly censured for stating that the vaccine can cause mental retardation.
Potential controversies and all, Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and a nonvoting member of the CDC committee, championed the recommendations for boys to receive the HPV vaccine:
“This is cancer, for Pete’s sake. A vaccine against cancer was the dream of our youth.”
Can parents overcome their scruples and protect their children against HPV infections and deadly cancers?
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