If you have a daughter, chances are your family doctor has already recommended she get the HPV (or human papillomavirus) vaccination. For a disease that can ultimately lead to cancer, taking a precaution like that seems like a no-brainer.
But what about boys? While it may seem less pressing since he’s less likely to experience adverse effects, he could still get HPV if he comes in contact with the virus. What's more, he's at risk for some forms of cancer, and ultimately, he could become a carrier and pass the infection on to his partners. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is unequivocal—and strongly recommends that both boys and girls get the HPV vaccine, which requires three separate doses, beginning around 11 years old.
“Infection with HPV can unfortunately result in cancers in both girls and boys,” says Dr. Meg Fisher, past president of the New Jersey chapter of the AAP and medical director at The Unterberg Children’s Hospital at Monmouth Medical Center. “So it’s not just protecting the boys from transmitting it to the girls. You’re also protecting boys from getting cancer—usually cancers of the anus, penis, mouth and throat."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, and nearly all sexually active men and women will contract it at some point in their lives. HPV is transmitted through vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who has the virus, and can be passed from person to person even if the carrier is not showing symptoms. The CDC says 79 million Americans are currently infected, with 14 million new cases every year.
While the most common way to contract HPV is through vaginal intercourse, Fisher says oral sex is another. “Many teens don’t consider oral sex to be ‘real sex,’’’ she says. “This can be dangerous because they aren’t protecting themselves from transmitting the virus.”
Dr. Sally Rafie, a specialist in reproductive health and an assistant clinical professor of health sciences at the University of California San Diego Skaggs School of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences, says once contracted, HPV can go unnoticed because there are often no symptoms for either gender, especially boys. But when there are symptoms, they're unpleasant: two strains of the virus can cause genital warts.
There are currently three vaccinations available—Cervarix, Gardasil and Gardasil 9—but for boys, only Gardasil and Gardasil 9 are recommended, as they protect against both genital warts and anal cancer. The CDC recommends that all pre-teens get the vaccine.
“The best way to protect boys is to immunize them in the pre-teen years before exposure, before they’re even thinking about exposure,” says Fisher.
But most parents in America aren't getting the message.
“While more than half of teen girls have received the first dose, only 38 percent have received the full series nationally,” explains Rafie. “The numbers are much lower for boys, with only 14 percent of boys receiving the full series.”
New Jersey numbers are low, too. According to a federal survey released in 2014, only 14 percent of boys have been vaccinated in New Jersey (the outlook for girls isn’t much better —NJ has the fourth-lowest HPV vaccination rate for girls, with only 31.4 percent of them getting all three shots.)
Fisher says this is likely because many parents are still leery about vaccinating their kids against HPV. “There’s hesitancy because this is a relatively new recommendation,” she says.
But they shouldn’t worry. Rafie says that to date, more than 50 millions doses of the HPV vaccine have been given in the last 10 years without any serious safety concerns reported.
Parents’ other concern? That getting their 'tweens the HPV shot will encourage them to go on the prowl for sex.
“Research has shown that getting the vaccine does not make kids more likely to be sexually active or to start having sex at a younger age,” says Rafie. “The vaccine is not a license to have sex. It’s a license to health.”