Dr. Joan Cates is a lecturer at the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Chapel Hill and a researcher at the N.C. Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute. Here she explains why the human papillomavirus vaccine, often associated with reducing the risk of cervical cancer, is important for girls and boys alike. Questions and answers have been edited.
Q: Many of us have seen public service announcements for vaccinating girls against HPV, the infection that is associated with cervical, vaginal, vulvar, anal, penile and throat cancers. Why is attention now turning to the vaccination of boys?
Boys can get cancer and genital warts from HPV, too. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Vaccinating boys before they are exposed to the virus helps to protect them from HPV-related diseases and from transmitting the virus to future partners. Plus only about 1 in 3 girls has completed the three-shot series of HPV vaccine, so we can’t count on just vaccinating girls to protect everyone. Vaccinating both girls and boys will reduce the overall chance of HPV infection.
Q: Why is there still so little uptake of the vaccine?
Some parents and health care providers think that vaccinating at the recommended routine ages of 11 and 12 may be too young, or they are not ready to bring up the topics of sexual activity and sexually transmitted diseases. Parents want to be reassured about vaccine side effects and safety and want their son’s health care provider to recommend it.
Q: What is the potential public health impact of increasing HPV vaccination rates among boys?
Vaccinating boys will reduce HPV infection and related diseases in the population. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two types of HPV virus cause more than 7,000 cases of cancer in males every year in the U.S. This estimate includes about 5,300 cases of throat and neck cancers in males alone. The same two HPV types cause more than 14,000 cases of cancer, including 9,000 cases of cervical cancer, in females every year. Vaccinating both males and females will reduce a tremendous burden of disease in the long run.
Q: What have you discovered with regard to parental knowledge or perceptions surrounding the HPV vaccine for boys?
We were surprised in a telephone survey in North Carolina that while 39 percent of parents of boys ages 9-13 said boys in general had a high chance of getting HPV disease in their lifetimes, only 4 percent said their own son had a high chance of getting HPV disease. This shows a very different perception of risk for one’s own child compared to the population.