Friday, October 28, 2011

HPV is a Gay Men's Health Crisis

A committee from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently made headlines by recommending human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccinations for boys and young men.

Previously, vaccination, which also protects women from cervical and other cancers, was recommended for girls only.

I commend the committee’s decision: Vaccination can all but eliminate HPV-related cancers. Almost all instances of anal cancer are caused by HPV, which is sexually transmitted.

HPV also causes many oral and other so-called head and neck cancers.

HPV is a gay men’s health issue. Anal cancer affects about two in 100,000 people in the U.S., but the rate of anal cancer among gay and bisexual men is as much as 44 times higher.

 Although vaccination is an important step, this recommendation is not enough. Prejudice and stigma continue to hinder an adequate public health response to HPV.

 As with HIV/AIDS, for HPV and anal cancer silence equals death.

Even though the HPV vaccine, called Gardasil or Silgard, was approved and recommended for use in girls since 2006, it has been hard to get girls vaccinated.

The exchange about HPV in a recent debate among Republican presidential contenders sheds light on Americans’ reluctance:

As former senator Rick Santorum charged, “this disease is spread through sexual contact... unless 11- and 12-year-olds in the state of Texas are somehow encouraged to participate in that activity, this is not something that the state or federal government should be doing.”

The argument is that vaccinating girls encourages them to engage in sex. This is a ludicrous suggestion because Gardasil protects against infection at any time over a lifetime — it is not specific to sex in youth.

Other arguments — concerning the safety of the vaccine, for example — have been repudiated repeatedly by medical authorities.

If it has been so hard to get girls vaccinated, for fear of encouraging heterosexual sex, it is no surprise that public health authorities in the U.S. have been reluctant to recommend HPV vaccination to protect boys who, when they become sexually active, may engage in same-sex anal sex.

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