In 2006, the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, Gardasil, was introduced to protect young women from developing cervical cancer. However, a recent announcement from the US Food and Drug Administration has also extended this recommendation to be vaccinated to young men in order to help protect them from developing genital warts and anal cancer.
HPV is a type of virus that has over 100 subtypes and is spread to approximately 3000 new people in Canada each year. While most HPV subtypes have little effect on human health, a number of them have been found to substantially increase the risk of developing certain forms of cancer and sexually transmitted diseases.
For instance, research has indicated that HPV-16 and HPV-18 are responsible for 70 per cent of cervical cancer and are the primary cause of anal and penile cancer. In addition, HPV-6 and HPV-11 are responsible for 90 per cent of genital and anal warts. More recent research has also indicated that HPV-16 and HPV-18 may also be responsible for a high proportion of head and neck cancers.
The recommendation to vaccinate men against HPV is supported by a number of recent studies. This past October, Dr. Joel Palefsky and his colleagues published a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine that investigated the efficacy of the HPV vaccine in protecting men from developing anal cancer. The results indicated that the HPV vaccine significantly reduced the number of anal lesions that became cancerous in comparison to the control group that did not receive the vaccine. In addition, research published last February by Dr. Anna Giuliano and her colleagues indicated that the HPV vaccine significantly reduced the number of genital warts that men developed versus those who did not receive the vaccine.
Research has also suggested that HPV vaccinations in men may help protect women from developing cervical cancer. According to a report by the Cancer Advocacy Coalition of Canada, HPV vaccine coverage in young women is only about 50 per cent in Ontario — substantially lower than expected. As men can transmit HPV to any sexual partner (male or female), more men receiving the vaccine could also protect unvaccinated women from HPV.
While research is still being conducted to determine whether the HPV vaccine can reduce the risk of developing head and neck cancer in men, the current research strongly supports its efficacy in reducing anal cancer and genital warts. In light of this research, it will be interesting to see whether the government of Canada decides to support a vaccination program for Canadian men.