Question on Twitter, via CNN: “Should boys get the HPV vaccine, too?”
(Actually, the linked article is pretty good and solid in saying yes, but I hate news articles that phrase things like that as a question, as if it’s up for scientific debate. It isn’t. And here’s why.)
HPV is the virus frequently linked to cervical cancer in women, which is probably why so many people have the idea that it’s only applicable to or necessary for women. After all, only women have cervixes!* But if you think about it, how do people with cervixes get HPV that leads to cervical cancer? The answer is that, typically, they get it from men who are also infected. So just on those grounds alone, we have a solid reason to give men the HPV vaccine: it will stop them contracting HPV and then acting as a vector to pass it on to their sexual partners. Eliminating the vector in one way or another is a solid method of disease control, when it’s possible, and we can’t spray men with DDT like mosquitos.
The other thing is that, despite the huge focus on HPV as a cause of cervical cancer, HPV can cause cancer in men. It isn’t limited to causing disease in the cervix: it’s not that specific. HPV causes cancer by disrupting normal cell functions, changing the genes that are transcribed and therefore the proteins that should be made by a healthy cell. This can inhibit cell death, an absolutely vital protection against cancer, and ultimately lead to cancers wherever the virus can establish infection. Thus, HPV can cause cancers of the throat, male genitalia and anus as well.
A more sensible question would be, should people who are not sexually active get the HPV vaccine? We know that committed nuns, for example, have a much, much lower rate of cervical cancer than the rest of the population.
Well, if you know for sure you’re never going to be sexually active, then sure, don’t bother with the HPV vaccine. You’re unlikely to contract a dangerous form of HPV any other way. If there’s any chance you’re going to be sexually active at some point, though, you might as well. The vaccine is very safe, with the WHO identifying only two types of adverse reactions (anaphylaxis and syncope) and these occurring very rarely (anaphylaxis has been observed in 1.7 cases per million doses, and syncope has been established as a stress reaction to vaccination in general rather than HPV vaccines specifically).
So, no surprises here: NEAT science says go get vaccinated.