Why Men Need To Start Caring About HPV

Photographed by Tayler Smith.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of very few STIs that we have a vaccine for. And — bonus! — that vaccine prevents cancer. But a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released last month indicated that although we've made some improvements in the vaccination rates, they still aren't where we want them — especially for boys. This is despite the fact that pretty much everyone who's sexually active will get the virus at some point and men are at risk for their own unique set of HPV-related health consequences.

Let's start with the basics: "HPV is a virus that’s sexually transmitted, but it’s incredibly common," explains Kathleen Schmeler, MD, of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Up to 80% of people get it at some point in their lives, she says, which is why some doctors refer to it as the "common cold" of STIs. For most people, the virus goes away on its own, without causing symptoms or needing treatment. Some people develop genital warts that can be treated with medication. But in some rare instances, the virus can go on to cause more serious health issues — including some types of cancer.

"The problem is we don't know who’s going to clear it and who won’t," Dr. Schmeler says. Most notably, HPV is known to cause cervical cancer. In fact, nearly all cases of cervical cancer are attributed to HPV. In 2013, the most recent year with available data, almost 12,000 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer in the U.S. and about 4,200 women died from the disease.

In addition to the risks of passing on the virus to their partners, men may face other consequences of HPV. Some types of HPV-related cancer, including throat cancer, are actually more common among men than women. "The rates for that are increasing significantly," says Dr. Schmeler. "That's been a huge deal recently."

However, there is currently no accepted test for HPV-related cancers in men. Women are recommended to get a routine Pap screening, which can detect abnormal cervical cells that may be a result of an HPV infection. But similar screening for anal, penile, and throat cancers in men isn't recommended.

"The common story that we hear is that [men are] shaving and they find a big lump in their neck," says Dr. Schmeler. "But by then, it’s advanced disease because it's spread to the lymph nodes."

So although Dr. Schmeler's team is working to find one, there’s no early or precancerous-stage test to detect HPV-related cancer in men.

Because they can't be tested, it's that much more important for boys to get the vaccine. Currently, the vaccine is recommended for boys and girls ages 11 to 12 to make sure they get it before they come in contact with the virus. But according to that August report, only about 50% of boys and 63% of girls actually got the vaccine in 2015. While the rates are improving quickly, they're still nowhere near where they should be.

So why is it that the already-low vaccination rate is even lower for boys than girls? Part of that appears to be due to the way the vaccine was originally marketed: "When it first came out [in 2006], it was recommended only for girls because the primary focus was cervical cancer," explains Dr. Schmeler. Since then, the CDC has expanded its recommendations to include boys, too. Parents may simply be unaware of the update.

According to research from the CDC, another big problem is that parents don't believe their kids are (or are about to be) sexually active at that age. Doctors may be reluctant to push the issue or, in some cases, even bring it up.

"Everyone's so obsessed with the fact that it's a sexually transmitted disease," says Dr. Schmeler. "[And in the process, we're] forgetting that, with this vaccine, we can prevent cancer."

It may be too late for adult men to get the most out of vaccination — it's recommended that everyone get the vaccine by age 26. But for it to be it's most effective, you should ideally get the vaccine before you're exposed to the virus. And if you've already had multiple sexual partners, it's likely that you've already been exposed.

But that doesn't mean men don't have to worry about this. In addition to the risk of spreading the virus to their partners, men are at risk for various cancers, as well. The bottom line is that HPV affects everyone, so we should all be equally sharing the burden of stopping the virus — and its associated cancers.

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