HPV vaccinations save men’s lives, too

Study finds higher HPV immunization rates among women block cancers in men
Vial of HPV vaccine
A new Dutch study finds HPV immunization cuts the risk of HPV-related cancers in men as well as women. Photo by Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Health officials have long urged boys to get HPV vaccinations to shield women from the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus that causes cervical cancer, but a new study shows such immunization campaigns also cut guys’ risks for contracting HPV-related cancers.

In fact, guarding women against the virus should no longer be “the sole public health objective” of HPV vaccination pushes, Dutch researchers assert in a study published Tuesday in BMJ.

“As a take-home message, we hope that protection of men against HPV-related cancer becomes an integral part of the object of any HPV vaccination program,” study co-author Dr. Johannes Berkhof wrote in an email.

Before HPV vaccinations became available, 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 rates among females have nudged closer to 60 percent in nations like the Netherlands, there’s been a 37 percent reduction in the number of life years lost among men, the study found. (That’s roughly equal to the same decrease in the men’s risk for developing HPV-related cancer).

If health officials in any nation can boost HPV vaccine uptake in girls to 90 percent, the burden of HPV-related cancers among men would plummet by 66 percent during their lifetimes, the researchers calculated.

Berkhof and his colleagues based their findings on recent data from the Dutch national cancer registry.

America lags behind in HPV protection

HPV vaccination rates in the U.S., however, fall well shy of those thresholds. Last year, just one in three American girls and one in seven American boys had received all three recommended doses of the HPV vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. In Australia, by comparison, the HPV vaccine is offered as 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.

“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,” said Dr. Denise Galloway, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center scientist who played a critical role in discovering HPV’s association with cancer, paving the way for the vaccine.

“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,” Galloway added. She was not involved in the Dutch study.

Every year, about 17,500 U.S. women and 9,300 U.S. men are affected by cancers caused by HPV, the CDC reports. Unvaccinated people are infected with HPV during sex with another person.

A failure to prevent a preventable cancer

“The shame is, here we are, a country where at least one of the two common HPV vaccines was developed,” Galloway said. “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.”

Federal health officials recommend that all kids aged 11 or 12 years old get a three-dose series of HPV vaccine. Teenage boys and adolescent girls who weren’t immunized when younger should get the vaccines now, the CDC says. Young women can get the HPV vaccine through age 26, and young men can get vaccinated through age 21.

During 2013, 57.3 percent of American girls between the ages of 13 and 17 received at least one dose of HPV vaccine, CDC reported.

“The main question is whether it is sensible to offer vaccination to boys when the uptake in girls remains 60 percent and when uptake in girls (in some nations) increases to the target level of 90 percent,” Berkhof wrote in an email.

Cost is the most commonly cited snag when it comes to including U.S. boys in HPV vaccination programs. Each shot costs $130 to $150 – or $390 to $450 for the full series, according to the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals. A program called Vaccines for Children does help uninsured kids under age 19 get access to free HPV vaccines.

“To decide whether boys should be offered HPV vaccination, we need to assess the burden of HPV associated disease in men and how much of this will be prevented by vaccination of girls,” the Dutch researchers wrote. “Unless vaccination of girls will eliminate vaccine-type HPV infection from the population, men will remain vulnerable to vaccine preventable cancers.”

Bill Briggs is a former Fred Hutch News Service staff writer. Follow him at @writerdude. Previously, he was a contributing writer for NBCNews.com and TODAY.com, covering breaking news, health and the military. Prior, he was a staff writer for The Denver Post, part of the newspaper's team that earned the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Columbine High School massacre. He has authored two books, including "The Third Miracle: an Ordinary Man, a medical Mystery, and a Trial of Faith." 

Solid tumors, such as those of the cervix, are the focus of Solid Tumor Translational Research, a network comprised of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, UW Medicine and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. STTR is bridging laboratory sciences and patient care to provide the most precise treatment options for patients with solid tumor cancers.

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