Vaccinating boys against HPV

Professor proposes equal-opportunity vaccination against an equal-opportunity virus.

Published July 31, 2006 10:30PM (EDT)

About a month ago, the FDA's The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices wisely recommended that 11 and 12-year-old girls be routinely vaccinated against HPV, the sexually transmitted virus that can lead to cervical cancer. (The FDA had previously pronounced the drug safe for girls as young as nine.) Several members additionally recommended that boys be immunized, but that advice didn't make it into the committee's final recommendation. Currently the country's Op-Ed pages and advocacy organizations are embroiled in debate over whether the vaccine should be a condition of school enrollment.

Now some researchers have taken up the case for vaccinating boys. In an editorial in the new issue of the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of California at Irvine gynecologic oncology professor Bradley Monk argues that there are plenty of good reasons to do so: HPV has been linked with penile, anal and neck cancer in males, and can cause genital warts. If the vaccine can protect boys and men from disease, why not administer it?

And then there's the eminently sensible argument that it takes two to tango. "Men can pass on the virus to their sexual partners, so it makes sense to vaccinate boys against HPV," Reuters notes. Some might argue against duplicate vaccination -- as long as all girls get vaccinated, why go to the extra trouble and expense? -- but protecting both genders equally is practical as well as egalitarian. And snuffing out the virus across the board will help prevent its transmission to those who haven't been vaccinated, including the small percentage of kids who unfortunately have sex before they're 11 or 12.

In fact, Monk thinks just about everyone should receive the vaccine, regardless of age, gender or even certain risk factors. "We need to move toward a paradigm where this is a universal vaccine," he writes. "To have a vaccine that prevents cancer and not use it would be one of the greatest tragedies."

And for those who argue that vaccinating against HPV will encourage indiscriminate sex among young people, Monk counters ably: "Just because you wear a seat belt, does that mean you drive recklessly? Or just because you give your son a tetanus shot, does that mean he is going to go out and step on a rusty nail?" he writes. "Of course not."

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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