The HPV vaccine prevents cancer – this is not surprising information, because the wealth of evidence supporting the safety and effectiveness of the HPV vaccine is approaching unassailable. Of course, many people make claims about various cures for and prevention of cancer on the internet, but seriously there are just a handful of ways to prevent cancer. And one of them is getting the HPV vaccine.
Most of the early data was in reduction of cancer rates, especially for cervical cancer, in women. Part of this bias was because the HPV vaccine was originally just indicated for girls and young women. But more recently, the vaccine was approved in most areas of the world to be used with boys and young men.
However, a new study is out that gives us more evidence that the vaccine will prevent cancer in men. And that’s more good news if you’re looking for an effective way to prevent some cancers.
What is HPV?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the USA. There are more than 40 HPV sub-types that can infect the genital areas of males and females. Additionally, some HPV types can also infect the mouth and throat. HPV is generally transmitted from personal contact during vaginal, anal or oral sex.
HPV is linked to cancers in men and women, and because there are so many subtypes, research has established which HPV types are linked to certain cancers. Cervical, vulvar, vaginal, oropharyngeal, penile, and anal cancers can be caused by by one or more of the 40 sub-types of HPV. (For more information about the specific HPV sub-types that cause each of these cancers, please see this article.)
HPV is believed to cause nearly 5% of all new cancers across the world, making it almost as dangerous with regards to cancer as tobacco. According to the CDC, roughly 79 million Americans are infected with HPV–approximately 14 million Americans contract HPV every year. Most individuals don’t even know they have the infection until the onset of cancer. About 27,000 HPV-related cancers are diagnosed in the USA every year.
What is the HPV vaccine?
The original HPV quadrivalent vaccine, known as Gardasil (or Silgard in Europe), can prevent infection by human papillomavirus, substantially reducing the risk of these types of cancers. An HPV bivalent vaccine, known as Cervarix, is used in some countries, but only provides protection again two of the subtypes most associated with cervical cancer.
The new version of Gardasil,recently cleared by the US Food and Drug Administration, protects teens and young adults from 9 subtypes of HPV, helping prevent more cancers.
So what’s this new study?
In a new study published in The BMJ, from Netherlands researchers JA Bogaards et al., wanted to assess the reduction in the vaccine preventable burden of cancer in men if boys are vaccinated along with girls against oncogenic (cancer-causing) HPV. The results of this new study showed thatHPV immunization campaigns not only cut the risk of cancer for women, but also cut men’s risks for contracting HPV-related cancers.
The study found that there was a benefit for men brought by reducing HPV circulation among females through the Gardasil vaccine–but there was an additional benefit from vaccinating boys against HPV. The study found that, after higher vaccine coverage among girls, the additional benefit against the HPV-related cancers that affect men – anal, penile and some throat cancers – would come from preventing the infection among men who have sex with other men.
The study was designed their study to estimate the cancer benefits to men if boys were vaccinated in their country as well as girls. In the Netherlands, universal coverage for the vaccine is only for girls. Other than the US, Australia, Austria and two provinces in Canada, few places have a policy for HPV immunization of boys.
Using the Netherlands national cancer registry and epidemiological studies, the authors analyzed the impact of HPV vaccination on cancers affecting men linked to the papillomavirus. The authors concluded that:
Men will benefit indirectly from vaccination of girls but remain at risk of cancers associated with HPV.
The incremental benefit of vaccinating boys when vaccine uptake among girls is high is driven by the prevention of anal carcinomas, which underscores the relevance of HPV prevention efforts for men who have sex with men.
According to the researcher, prior to wide availability of HPV vaccinations, about 15 quality years of life were lost for every 1,000 Dutch men due to preventable cancers linked to HPV, estimated Berkhof and his colleagues at VU University Medical Centre in Amsterdam. Among men, those cancers primarily occur in the head, neck and anogenital areas.
As HPV vaccination uptake amongst women in the the Netherlands has reached approximately to 60%, there’s been a 37% reduction in the number of life years lost among men, the study found. That result is roughly equal to the same decrease in the men’s risk for developing HPV-related cancer.
Interestingly, if the HPV vaccine uptake in girls were to reach 90%, the burden of HPV-related cancers among men would fall by 66% percent during their lifetimes. This is just an incredible benefit of the HPV vaccine. The cost burden to healthcare system to diagnose and treat these cancers would be huge.
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America lags behind in HPV protection
Sadly, the HPV immunization uptake in many countries, especially the USA, fail to even close to the 90% threshold. Last year, just one in three American girls and one in seven American boys had received all three recommended doses of the HPV vaccine.
By comparison, Australia offers the HPV vaccine as a part of a free, school-based immunization program. And since that program began in 2007, more than 70 percent of 15-year-old Australian girls have received all three doses of the vaccine.
As a result of this program, Australia has experienced a 60% reduction in HPV infections with a concomitant decrease in HPV-related cancer risks. Imagine the decrease once Australia hits the 90% HPV vaccine uptake rate.
The HPV vaccine prevents cancer
Dr. Denise Galloway, a scientist from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who played an important role in discovering HPV’s association with cancer, is emphatic about how high HPV vaccine uptake can stop some cancers:
If you have high enough [HPV] coverage of women, you probably don’t need to vaccinate men – with the exception of MSM (men who have sex with men) who are not going to be protected by vaccinating women.
But in the United States, we don’t have very high coverage. If we don’t have very high protection among women, we’re not going to have great herd immunity, so it makes sense in the United States to vaccinate both boys and girls.
The shame is, here we are, a country where at least one of the two common HPV vaccines was developed,. We are a rich nation and yet we’re not vaccinating to prevent against the cancer that otherwise can be prevented. And not only [prevent] the cancer, but all of the treatments of the premalignant lesions that are not only costly but unpleasant for women.
The full series of three HPV vaccines is expensive, around $400. However, at least in the USA, almost all vaccines are free. Health insurance, whether private or public (Medicaid and Medicare) cover almost all of the cost of HPV vaccines. And the Vaccines for Children Program, supported by the US Centers for Disease Control, provides free vaccines to any child who cannot otherwise afford the cost of the vaccine.
The HPV vaccine prevents cancer – and there’s really no reason why every American teen, boy or girl, shouldn’t be vaccinated. Let’s do this.
- Bogaards JA, Wallinga J, Brakenhoff RH, Meijer CJLM, Berkhof J. Direct benefit of vaccinating boys along with girls against oncogenic human papillomavirus: bayesian evidence synthesis. BMJ 2015;350:h2016 doi: 10.1136/bmj.h2016.
- Galloway DA, McDougall JK. Human papillomaviruses and carcinomas. Adv Virus Res. 1989;37:125-71. Review. PubMed PMID: 2557758.