A vaccine for gentlemen

If Gardasil is approved for boys as well as girls, will parents choose to inoculate their sons to help protect future sexual partners from cervical cancer?

By Catherine Price
Published February 26, 2008 2:32PM (EST)

Here's a question: If a vaccine were available to your children that would prevent them from passing on HIV to their sexual partners if they were to carry it, would you inoculate them? My guess is that many people would say yes: HIV is considered so serious that it would be worth being inoculated if only to avoid transmitting the disease to someone else. It would be the altruistic thing to do.

But what if the disease were cervical cancer? That's the question at hand, reports the New York Times, with Gardasil, the vaccine that guards against several strains of human papillomavirus that have been shown to lead to cervical cancer and genital warts. We've reported on the debate over boys and Gardasil before, but the Times article adds some nuance to the debate: Its question is not predominantly whether Gardasil would be effective in boys -- that will presumably be determined around 2009, once the FDA has had a chance to evaluate the boy-specific data that Merck is set to submit sometime this year. Rather, the question is whether parents will be willing to inoculate their sons with a costly vaccine that prevents cancer in a body part that they don't even have -- and, what's more, one that is transmitted sexually.

If Gardasil is shown to be effective in preventing HPV in boys, I don't see why this should even require a debate (beyond the usual concerns over how much inoculation is too much inoculation). Cervical cancer kills a quarter of a million women worldwide every year, reports the Times, 3,700 in America alone. It also causes many precancerous conditions, and a study referred to by the Times puts the annual cost of cervical HPV-related disease at $2.25 billion to $4.6 billion. So whether you come at it from an altruistic or an economic perspective, it makes sense to provide all the protection you can.

For anyone out there who wants to argue that boys shouldn't be pressured into getting a vaccine that prevents cancer of a body part they don't have, keep in mind that Gardasil has also been shown to be effective against not just vulval and vaginal cancers but equal-opportunity afflictions like throat and anal cancer and certain types of genital warts.

I'll admit to having my own issues with Gardasil -- or, more specifically, its marketing: I get angry every time I see a commercial with the tagline "One Less." ("One fewer!" I shout at the television screen. "It should be one fewer!") But that has more to do with my grammatical pet peeves than it does with the issue of whether kids should get vaccinated against cancer. Provided that Gardasil is shown to be safe and effective for boys, I think encouraging inoculation is a no-brainer. And if HPV weren't sexually transmitted, there'd be a lot less debate.

Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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