Author: Adina Nack
Jorge (not his real name) feared his girlfriend would dump him. He’d been diagnosed with genital warts before meeting her, and hadn’t yet told her about his infection. Jorge was being careful—no skin-to-skin sexual contact—but the disclosure was looming. So he’d done some research and learned what caused genital warts. Armed with that knowledge, he hoped that his girlfriend wouldn’t reject him, especially since he knew she could be protected from contracting warts “because of the Gardasil vaccine.”
It never occurred to Jorge that Gardasil, made by the pharmaceutical company Merck, could also have protected him. But that’s probably because it was only last October that the Food and Drug Administration approved a “male” Gardasil for preventing genital warts. And the FDA has yet to put its stamp on another promising usage of the vaccine for men: preventing cancer, especially highly prevalent oral cancers.
Since Gardasil was FDA-approved in 2006, it has received a huge marketing push for preventing cervical cancer in women. It has come into frequent—if sometimes controversial—use for females 9 to 26 years old because it’s designed to guard them, before they ever have sex, against contracting a virus that has been linked to cervical cancer.
That virus is HPV, human papillomavirus, which causes one-third of all sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the U.S. Gardasil offers protection against four of the 30 to 40 types of sexually transmissible HPV.
While it’s fear of cervical cancer that have motivated young women to get HPV vaccines, it can lead to oral, anal and penile cancers as well. In fact, the combined U.S. death rates for these cancers are at least twice that of cervical cancers. Oral cancers should be of particular concern, to both men and women. Some researchers believe that HPV may soon cause more oral cancers in the U.S. than alcohol or tobacco combined.
So far, Gardasil is only approved to protect men from genital warts, but that could change. Since the virus is an equal opportunity infector, it would seem that the vaccines should be equally accessible and affordable for men as well as women. But as it stands, with CDC vaccination recommendations currently less forceful for men, some predict HPV vaccination for males will be more expensive because insurance companies may be less likely to cover the costs.
STIs are medical conditions, not moral ones. Women and men should be encouraged to seek testing, consider vaccinations and, if infected, pursue treatment. When a contagious disease is stigmatized, infected individuals may be more likely to delay testing and treatment, place others at risk by not disclosing, and distort our notion of who is at risk.
1. Adina Nack, Ph. D., is associate professor of sociology and gender and women’s studies at California Lutheran University. She is the author of Damaged Goods? Women Living with Incurable Sexually Transmitted Diseases (Temple University Press, 2008.