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The HPV Vaccine and the Great Divide

When we hear about the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine in the media, it is almost always in correlation to women’s health issues and cervical cancer. What most people don’t realize is that when it comes to HPV, women are only half the equation.
According to the Center for Disease Control, there are two vaccines on the market that protect against the cancer causing strains of HPV: Gardasil®, which was licensed in 2006 for use in females age 9-26 years and Cervarix®, which was licensed in 2009 for use in females age 10-25. Gardasil protects against the four most common strains of HPV including two cancer causing “high risk” strains and two “low risk” strains that cause genital warts, which are harmful in their own right but cannot kill you like the high risk strains can.
What most people don’t realize is that the Gardasil vaccine, which protects against all four most common strains of HPV, has been made available to men ages 9-26 since October 2009. Given that, a lot of young men see getting the vaccine as a mere courtesy to their female sexual partner(s) and while this is certainly a nice gesture, it is important to note that HPV has also been found to cause not only genital warts in men but also cancer.

According to an article published by ABC News, HPV appears to be linked to a rare but treatable form of throat cancer, which if it continues to appear at the same annual rate, may surpass the number of cases of cervical cancer in women by the year 2020. So why are men not getting vaccinated?
According to Jenna Beckwith, UMD Coordinator of Sexual Health Education Programs, from August 2010 to July 2011, 58 women and only 12 men came to the UMD health center for the Gardasil vaccine. “Men can definitely have symptoms of HPV. It’s just never on their radars and a big reason for that is that it’s so new,” Beckwith said. “People still associate HPV as a women’s issue.”

Alex Combs, a senior business major at the University of Maryland spoke with me about the vaccine and was surprised to hear that it was available to men as well as women. “This is the first time I’ve heard that it affects men, I always thought it was a women’s thing,” Combs said.
Despite a lack of information Combs said that if the opportunity were presented to him, he would not be against getting vaccinated. “Honestly, I never go to the doctor but if a physician brought it up to me I would definitely consider it,” Combs said.
While doctors and sexual health experts play a large role in educating both men and women about the vaccine, Beckwith feels that like juicy gossip, there’s only one sure -fire way to spread the information. “I think that this vaccine and health educators can make a difference but it’s really got to be done through word of mouth,” Beckwith said.

 Word of mouth is what eventually persuaded Hugh Adams, senior public policy major at Florida Atlantic University, to get vaccinated. “I heard about the vaccine from my mom and she wanted me to get it,” Adams said. “Everybody should get it if they can. [HPV] can cause cancer and nobody likes cancer.”
It certainly seems that most guys in college would be perfectly willing to put a fear of needles aside and get vaccinated but like most people, they want to hear it from their doctors first. “Doctors never mention it to guys,” Adams said. “When I went in to get it, the doctor questioned me about why I wanted it. She told me that every guy who has come in for it came because their moms told them to,” Adams said.
Even if mom doesn’t want you to have it, a lot of girls feel that sexual health isn’t something you mess around with. “ My mom was skeptical but I think it’s a great thing,” Allie Scrimgeour, a sophomore bio engineering major at the University of Maryland said. “There are even assistance programs for people who can’t afford it.”
Despite what your mom or doctor say, getting vaccinated should be your choice, but it shouldn’t be avoided simply out of ignorance. For Beckwith, it is not so much about whether or not you choose to get vaccinated, it is that you now have the knowledge to choose.
“I think that it’s extremely important that young people are educated about HPV and educated about the possibility of getting vaccinated,” Beckwith said. “In a generation or two the possibility is out there that we could eradicate it like we have Polio and other diseases.”
The possibility of eradicating a potentially life threatening sexually transmitted infection must be taken seriously but for now it is most important that men realize that they are a part of the HPV equation.

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