The gender bias of the HPV vaccine: a cancer biology student’s perspective

When I first received Gardasil, the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine, I remember begging my parents not to get it. Older girls had told me about how painful it was and the horrible side effects they experienced. Some even claimed only promiscuous girls had to get it. Most girls in the class were exempt, and of course, as a young pre-teen I didn’t understand why I had to endure something so “unnecessary”. 

Fast forward 8 years later, I am a student pursuing research in cancer biology. One of the courses I am enrolled in, ‘cancer biology’, outlines the potential impacts of the HPV virus, including both benign and malignant conditions. In addition to anogenital and oropharyngeal cancers, new research is showing the HPV virus may even play a role in lung cancer. 

It is clear there is a gender bias in medicine, and this can be seen with the HPV vaccination. HPV is the one of the most common sexually transmitted infections - and it doesn’t discriminate. So why was the HPV vaccine promoted only to women? The reasoning was that it may lead to cervical cancer. However, if both sexes could contract the virus, wouldn’t prevention of the virus altogether reduce cervical cancer risk drastically?  

Screening for cervical cancer is well established in Canada. While this is great, the procedures to remove these abnormal or “pre-cancerous” cells from the cervix can cause a variety of negative side effects. These include serious bleeding, infection and infertility. As well I cannot forget to mention the emotional toll put on women who undergo these procedures - the negative stigma associated with cervical dysplasia (pre-cancer) exists to this day.  

Education is key to reducing ignorance, and this rings true with HPV. An estimated 70% of sexually active adults will contract a strain of HPV in their lifetime whether they are aware of it or not. Although HPV has been feminized in the past, it has the potential to affect anybody. But on the contrary, if it did only affect women, would that diminish its worth?  

Thankfully, in present times, the gender gap is narrowing, as the vaccine is now being promoted to both pre-teen girls and boys. So please, I am urging parents, vaccinate your children. In Ontario, the HPV vaccine is free for grade 7 and 8 students. Do you want your daughter to blame you for her cervical cancer? Or have your son responsible for a case of it?  

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