HPV And Cancer: Experts Say Boys Should Be Vaccinated Too As HPV Related Cancers On The Rise

HPV related cancers are on the rise, particularly among men, in both the United States and the U.K. Experts on both sides of the Atlantic say that vaccinating boys is the key to containing the epidemic.

In women, it involves largely cervical cancer. In men, who cannot get cervical cancers, the spike relates to what are called oropharyngeal cancers, or cancer of the head, throat, and tongue. The rising rates of oropharyngeal cancers among men are making headlines as they continue to trouble health experts.

HPV-Related Cancers In The U.S.

Last Thursday, a CDC report revealed an alarming spike in in cancers attributable to the sexually-transmitted HPV, or human papilloma virus, during the period between 2008 and 2012. As reported in Fortune, there was an increase in the diagnosis of HPV-related cancers in the U.S. of about 16 percent annually. Doctors diagnosed an average of just under 39,000 new cases of cancer each year that are associated with HPV. Among the new cases, 23,000 involved female patients and just under 16,000 male. In comparison, between 2004 and 2008, the annual average was 33,369.

The CDC report says that 30,800 of the new cases of HPV related cancers diagnosed could be attributed to HPV infection. The most troubling figure is 29,000 – the number of cases that the agency says could have been prevented with HPV vaccinations.

The report blames low vaccination rates that sit at 40 percent among girls and only 22 percent among boys, for the spike in cancers. Oral sex is thought to be one of the ways the risk is transmitted.

HPV And Cancer In The U.K.

There were similar calls for HPV vaccinations for boys in the U.K., where vaccination is targeted only at girls. In the U.K., girls aged 12 and 13 have been given the HPV vaccination since 2008. Professor Mark Lawler of Queen’s University Belfast spoke to the Guardian.

“If we want to eradicate male throat cancers – which are soaring in numbers – we need to act speedily and that means giving them the HPV vaccine we now give to girls.”

British authorities also put the blame on rising rates of oral sex. In the UK, rates of tonsil cancer have tripled since the 1990s and cancer that develops at the base of the tongue has also seen a significant rise. The numbers are particularly troubling because the survival rates of these types of cancers are low. Virologist Professor Sheila Graham, of Glasgow University, is quoted in the Guardian.

“Unfortunately, these cancers have very serious outcomes with dreadful morbidity.”

Some British experts say that vaccinating boys against HPV is unnecessary. Since rates of vaccination among girls are high in the U.K., it means that HPV will eventually be eliminated from women, resulting in what is known as “herd immunity.”

The HPV Cancer Link

The rates of oropharyngeal cancers are four times higher in men than in women. The link between HPV infection and the risk of contracting cancer of the mouth, head or tongue is increased seven fold, according to a study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Dr. Lois Ramondetta, professor of gynecologic oncology at MD Anderson Cancer Center is quoted by NBC News.

“There is an epidemic of HPV related cancers in men, specifically those of the tonsil and the back of the tongue. What’s really important to know about those is that there is no screening test for those.”

Experts point out that vaccinating girls only also leaves gay men at risk. As reported in the Telegraph, about 1,500 cases of anal cancer are diagnosed in the U.K. each year, which can be attributed to HPV infection.

HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections. The human papilloma virus can remain dormant for years before symptoms, such as genital warts or tumors, develop. Once contracted, there is no cure. The vaccine is only effective if it is administered before there has been any exposure to the HPV virus. That is why the cancer preventing HPV vaccine is given to young teenagers before they have become sexually active.

[Image via Kateryna Kon/Shutterstock]