Public-health officials are pushing for higher HPV vaccination rates amid growing evidence that cancers linked to the virus are afflicting more men.
The National Cancer Institute announced recently it is pouring nearly $2.7 million into 18 U.S. cancer centers to boost HPV vaccinations among boys and girls. The cancer centers will work with local health clinics to set recommendations for vaccinating against the sexually transmitted infection, which in some cases can cause cancers in men and women later in life.
HPV, or human papillomavirus, was considered a women’s-only issue, after researchers discovered a link between it and cervical cancer in the 1980s.
Now, as cervical-cancer rates are falling and oral-cancer rates in men steadily rise, “the burden of HPV cancer is shifting to men,” said Maura Gillison, a professor in the College of Medicine at Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Vaccination rates remain stifled, despite the availability of two vaccines that experts say provide effective coverage against cancer.
The Department of Health and Human Services’ goal is to boost HPV-vaccination rates to 80% by 2020—which is far higher than the 38% of girls and 14% of boys who completed the three-dose HPV vaccine last year, according to data from the National Immunization Survey of teenagers.
Pediatricians say boosting those rates can be difficult. Pediatricians may feel uneasy talking to parents of young children about sexually transmitted infections, health experts say, while parents may resist the vaccine because they believe their child isn’t at risk.
“Discussing this vaccination is difficult because there’s an implication of sexual activity,” said Carrie Byington, a practicing pediatrician in Salt Lake City and chairwoman of the Committee on Infectious Diseases for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “It can make some pediatricians uncomfortable with the topic.”
A study conducted in 2011 by the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla., found fewer than 15% of physicians always recommended the vaccine to boys, and no more than 55% always recommended it to girls. Susan Vadaparampil, a professor in the department of oncologic services at Moffitt who helped lead the study, said she thinks recommendation rates have risen today but there’s a long way to go.
To ease difficult conversations, Dr. Vadaparampil said resources on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website suggests that pediatricians should emphasize the vaccine is ultimately a protection against cancer and explain why children should receive the shots at such a young age.
Experts recommend the vaccine at age 11 or 12, but it can be given to girls up to age 26 and boys up to age 21. It is important for children to receive all three doses of the vaccine before they become sexually active.
“There’s science behind giving it at age 11—it’s not just about moral or family choices, or a child’s choice for sexual debut,” said Wendy Sue Swanson, a pediatrician and executive director of digital health at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “The immune response is better if you give it to an 11-year-old.”
Administering the vaccine at a young age doesn’t encourage sexual activity, Dr. Swanson said, citing a concern some parents have. A 2012 study comparing girls who had been vaccinated at ages 11 and 12 to nonvaccinated girls showed the vaccine made no difference in sexual behavior for at least three years after receiving the doses.
Not all cases of HPV are cancerous. Experts estimate nearly 79 million Americans are currently infected with one of the 100 different strains of HPV, which is passed via sex.
Typically, a body’s immune system fights off HPV naturally within two years of exposure. Complications, such as genital warts or cancer, arise when the virus lingers.
About 26,800 Americans are diagnosed with HPV-related cancers each year, about two-thirds of whom are women, according to 2010 data, the latest available, from the CDC.
The largest HPV-related threat to men is throat cancer, which has grown sharply in the past decade, Dr. Gillison said.
Today, more than 90% of all oral cancers are HPV-related, according to trends Dr. Gillison has observed in clinical settings in developed countries. That is up from about 72% between 2000 and 2004 and 16% between 1984 and 1989, she said, referencing a study she conducted that analyzed throat tumors in the U.S.
Most of that growth has been in men: Each year, about 7,200 American men are diagnosed with HPV-related oral cancer, versus 1,800 cases in women, according to 2010 CDC data.
Dr. Gillison said researchers estimate that around 2020, HPV-related oral cancers in men will eclipse cervical cancer, which afflicts some 12,000 new women each year, according to 2014 data from the American Cancer Society.
It’s unclear why men are more at risk for oral cancer than women, though some researchers suggest a person’s number of sexual partners may be related. The rise is problematic, Dr. Gillison said, because no preventive screening against throat cancer exists.
“The problem with HPV-positive oral cancer is that premalignant lesions are not clinically detectable. They’re deep within the tonsils that are in the base of the tongue,” Dr. Gillison said. “By the time HPV-infection is detected, they usually already have Stage 3 or 4 cancer.”
That is why doctors and experts are relying so heavily on vaccination as prevention.
Two vaccines—Cervarix, manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline Inc., and Gardasil, manufactured by Merck & Co.—are currently available, though only Gardasil is usually recommended for boys.
Cervarix offers protection against two strains of HPV; Gardasil against four. A third vaccination from Merck currently awaiting approval from the Food and Drug Administration would offer protection against an additional five strains of HPV—nine in total. Doctors expect approval within in the next several months.
*This news story was resourced by the Oral Cancer Foundation, and vetted for appropriateness and accuracy.