HPV and Men: What You Might Not Know About Prevention

Pamela Merritt

More than half of sexually active men in the United States will have some form HPV at some point during their lifetime. Yet many don't know the HPV vaccine was recently approved for men.

On the last weekend of June, I volunteered with Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri for a three-hour shift at their booth at Pridefest.  Pridefest is the annual two-day outdoor festival celebrating the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.  I’ve volunteered with Planned Parenthood at Pridefest before and have always enjoyed the positive reception, but this year was different.  Because this year the Planned Parenthood booth included a large banner announcing the availability of the HPV vaccine for males between the ages of 9 and 26 years old, prompting a lot of interest and questions.

It is important to note that the human papillomavirus (HPV) does not discriminate – people are at risk regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  There are also many forms of the virus, some of which are linked to cancers and others of which are not.

For men, HPV infection can increase the risk of genital cancers and/or cause genital warts.  It is estimated that more than half of sexually active men in the United States will have some form of HPV at some point during their lifetime. Although men will often clear HPV from their system with no health problems, it is important to understand the health risks associated with the virus.

Some types of HPV in men can lead to cancer of the anus or penis, although these types of cancer are rare in men with a healthy immune system.  Other types of the HPV virus cause genital warts. It is estimated that about one percent of sexually active men in the United States have genital warts at any given time.  The types of HPV that may cause cancers rarely present symptoms, but genital warts are a symptom of the type of HPV that causes warts but not cancer. 

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Genital warts are usually diagnosed through a visual exam.  There currently is no routine test for men the types of HPV that cause cancers, although some doctors recommend anal PAP tests for gay and bisexual men who are at higher risk for anal cancer caused by HPV.  HPV may lay dormant in the human body for years without presenting any symptoms.

Condoms protect against transmission of HPV, but they are not 100 percent effective because HPV is primarily transmitted skin-to-skin.  Abstinence is the only sure way to prevent transmission of HPV. 

Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, and Planned Parenthood health care centers across the United States, now offer HPV vaccinations to males ages 9 to 26.  Planned Parenthood also offers HPV vaccines for girls beginning at 11 or 12 years old.  The three-shot regimen protects against strains of HPV and is most effective when started before sexual activity and before exposure to the HPV virus.  A Patient Assistance Program from Gardasil manufacturer Merck allows for health care centers to provide the vaccine at an affordable cost. Gardasil can protect against four types of HPV that cause warts.

Many of the young men who visited the Planned Parenthood booth at Pridefest in St. Louis said that they were interested in the vaccine to protect their future sexual partners as well as themselves.  The risk of transmission of HPV does not miraculously disappear when a person gets married or enters into a committed relationship.  Some of the men had questions about getting the vaccine even though they are over the age of 26 – all people should consult a trusted health care provider like Planned Parenthood to find information about testing, treatment and the HPV vaccine.

Throughout my volunteer shift at the Planned Parenthood booth at Pridefest 2010, I met people who wanted medically accurate information about HPV and the HPV vaccine.  A lot of folks said that they didn’t know that the HPV vaccine has been approved for males and I was grateful to be part of informing the public about an important health care opportunity.  I was impressed that so many parents came by the booth and were interested in getting more information about how the HPV vaccine could protect their sons and daughters and I was encouraged by the number of young men who visited the booth – gay, straight and bi-sexual – that were interested in taking proactive steps to protect themselves and their partners.  Knowledge is power – for more information about the HPV vaccine visit Planned Parenthood online.

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