2011-12-08 / Local & State

HPV Vaccination Becoming More Common For Boys

By David Bruce

ERIE, Pa. (AP) – Parents don't seem surprised when Dr. Jeffrey Kim suggests their sons get a human papillomavirus vaccine.

In fact, they often ask for the vaccine before Kim mentions it.

“A lot of families are asking about it, and if they don't, I will,” said Kim, a family practice and sports medicine specialist at Saint Vincent Sports Medicine. “It usually comes up for discussion when their son is in for a physical.”

Kim and other local physicians have been giving HPV vaccines to females since 2006. Studies have shown the vaccine greatly reduces the risk of cervical cancer caused by HPV.

Now, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends males ages 11 to 21 also get the HPV vaccine Gardasil, even though they can't get cervical cancer.

“Boys should get the vaccine because HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, and they are the source of the infection,” said Dr. Sam Voora, a Saint Vincent pediatrician and neonatologist. “We can prevent the virus in girls by giving the vaccine to boys.”

The vaccine also reduces the risk of penile, anal and throat cancers in males, and genital warts in males and females, Voora said.

But the vaccine is not without controversy.

It was mentioned in a Republican presidential debate earlier this year when U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann suggested – incorrectly – that it can cause mental retardation.

Some parents have expressed fear that getting their child vaccinated tells them it's OK to have premarital sex.

“It's an unfounded fear,” said Dr. Gary Marshall, chief of the division of pediatric infectious disease at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, during a vaccination seminar in Erie on Oct. 13. “Other parents, and some physicians, are reluctant to have a conversation about sex with an 11- or 12- year- old (child). But you don't have to talk about sex. Just talk about how it can prevent cancer.”

HPV infection is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. About 20 million Americans currently are infected with the virus, according to the CDC.

In about 90 percent of cases, the body clears the infection within two years. But certain types of HPV can lead to cancer.

Cervical cancer is the most common HPV-related cancer, with about 12,000 cases diagnosed in the United States each year.

“The cancer risk for girls is much higher, but the vaccine clearly has a benefit for boys, too,” said Howard Nadworny, M.D., Saint Vincent's chief of infectious diseases. “The types of cancers HPV can cause in males are relatively rare, but they are serious.”

Gardasil, the only HPV vaccine recommended for boys, is not cheap. The three-shot vaccine, usually spread over six months, costs about $375.

Most health insurances cover the vaccine for girls.

Some Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield plans already cover it for boys, and more will in 2012 now that the CDC recommends it, said Carey Vinson, M.D., Highmark's vice president of quality and medical performance management.

“I anticipate we will begin covering it from the first dollar as a preventive treatment,” Vinson said.

The CDC recommends vaccinating children when they are between 11 and 13 years old because the vaccine is more effective when given before the start of sexual activity.

“People can get it up to the age of 26, because studies have shown that a significant percentage of people that age haven't yet been infected by all four HPV strains that can cause cancer,” Nadworny said.

Kim vaccinates a lot of 11- to 13-year-olds at his office, but he also gives shots to teenagers.

“I also work at Penn State Behrend a half-day a week, and I see a lot of male students getting vaccinated there,” Kim said.

But earlier is better, Nadworny said. The vaccine may be given to children as young as 9 years of age.

It's too early to tell how many boys will get vaccinated against HPV. About half of the eligible girls get their shots, far fewer than what doctors hoped when the vaccine was approved.

“We'd like to see more children get the vaccine,” Nadworny said. “Not only for their own protection, but the more people who are vaccinated, the less chance others who don't get the shot will acquire the virus.”

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