Cancer Prevention

The HPV Vaccine: Why Boys Should Get It Too

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

HPV (short for human papillomavirus) is often misunderstood. Some think that HPV, which infects people through any physical, skin-to-skin contact and can lead to genital warts and cancer, is exceedingly rare. Others think that all strains of HPV cause cancer. In reality, HPV infections are very common, but cancer caused by HPV is not. Most people infected with HPV will not develop a cancer related to the infection.

Additionally, one of the other most prevailing HPV myths  is the notion that the virus, only affects women. In truth, HPV affects about 80 percent of people throughout their lifetime. The infection typically goes away on its own without causing health problems; however, if the body does not clear the virus it can cause several different types of cancers, including cervical cancer in women, and, increasingly, mouth/throat cancer in men. In fact, today, oropharyngeal cancer has overtaken cervical cancer as the most common HPV-related malignancy in the U.S.

That’s why physicians like Vivian Wu, M.D., a head and neck surgical oncologist with Henry Ford Health System, stress the importance for young boys — and all youth — to get vaccinated.

“Imagine being able to prevent cancer with just two shots,” says Dr. Wu. “That’s essentially what HPV vaccine provides.”

Here, Dr. Wu explains the details of HPV and the vaccine that can keep your kids safe:

Q: What is HPV, exactly?
Dr. Wu: Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus that is pervasive or endemic in our society; in other words, it’s everywhere. At any point in time in the U.S., some 80 million people are infected though intimate contact (not necessarily sex). The majority of people with HPV are in their late teens to mid-20’s. Most of those infected, though, will clear the virus naturally within 9 to 24 months, but some people don’t clear the virus, and the infection can stick around and cause changes in the cells that it infects. These changes can lead to a number of cancers including cancer of the throat.

Q: Why should young boys (and their parents) be aware of HPV and the HPV vaccine?
Dr. Wu: I’m a head and neck cancer surgeon, and the cases that I see most these days are HPV-related cancers of the tonsils and tongue base — what we call HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer. The rise in these types of cancers has been rapid, and it affects men to women at a rate of 8:1. This is the type of cancer that the actor Michael Douglas was treated for.

Q: What age should young people get the vaccine?
Dr. Wu: The vaccine is approved for everyone ages 9 to 26. All children, including boys, should receive the vaccine prior to age 13. It’s when our immune systems are most robust/active, and because of this, if you complete the vaccine series before 13, you only need two doses. If you start the series after 13, we recommend three doses.

Q: Why wasn’t the vaccine commonly administered to boys in the beginning?
Dr. Wu: The HPV vaccine was approved by the FDA in 2006 for use in adolescent and teenage girls. This is likely because much of the initial research in the vaccine’s development was performed in females because of the burden of cervical cancer. The vaccine wasn’t approved for males until 2009. We now know that HPV causes several different types of cancers in men, including cancers of the oropharynx, anus and penis. Because of this delay in approval, there was a delay in access to the vaccine for boys, which translated to delayed publicity and a delay in information reaching both doctors and parents regarding the vaccine’s benefits for boys.

Q: How many people are getting HPV vaccine now?
Dr. Wu: In general, HPV vaccination rates remain dismally low. The rate of completion of the series is over 40 percent for girls and under 30 percent for boys. The rate of starting the series is near 60 percent for girls and under 50 percent for boys. Healthy People 2020 recommends vaccine uptake rates of 80 percent. By comparison, meningococcal (meningitis) vaccine and whooping cough vaccine (which are administered at the same time as HPV) are at vaccination rates of 80-90 percent.

Q: Is the vaccine safe for everyone? Is it effective?
Dr. Wu: We know that this vaccine is safe. We know it’s effective. It’s been studied for over a decade now in the female population, and recent, large studies have demonstrated a dramatic decrease in cervical pre-malignant lesions in the populations that received the HPV vaccine compared to those that did not.

Most importantly, Dr. Wu says, all youth need to receive the vaccine before they are exposed to the virus, and the risk of contracting the virus increases with age. So even if your pediatrician or primary care physician hasn’t recommended the vaccine yet, parents shouldn’t be afraid to ask about its availability. In doing so, you’ll be helping to combat the misinformation surrounding HPV.

To make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician to get the HPV vaccine, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

Dr. Vivian Wu is a board-certified otolaryngologist and head and neck surgeon treating various forms of cancer. She sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and the Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.