The human papilloma virus causes deadly cancers in both men and women and infects up to 80 percent of the American population. So why is the lifesaving HPV vaccine currently targeted at just the female half of the population?
A milestone recommendation from an influential vaccine advisory panel is set to change that.
Responsible parents will act on this common-sense medical advice, not succumb to antivaccine misinformation and misguided fears that a vaccine guarding against a sexually transmitted virus will promote promiscuity.
Late last month, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended that boys and young men -- who can contract the virus and spread it -- get the HPV vaccine, too.
Five years ago, the panel recommended the vaccine for girls and young women. The decision on boys was delayed to gather additional safety and cost-effectiveness data.
The panel is part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has yet to finalize the recommendation but typically does.
This imprimatur will add the HPV vaccine to the roster of routine pediatric shots, though it does not mandate it. It also sets the stage for more health insurers to pay for the three-shot series, which is important, because the cost can be $300 or more.
A generation ago, a shot that prevented cancer -- think about it -- would have been heralded as the remarkable public health advance that it is. Instead, this vaccine's arrival has been greeted with a puzzling shrug by many parents.
Nationally, about 49 percent of girls ages 13 to 17 have had at least one dose of the HPV vaccine, which is sold under the names Gardasil and Cervarix. Just 32 percent have received all three recommended doses.
Because the vaccine prevents a sexually transmitted virus, it unfortunately has been mired in politics, most recently when U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota made the baseless claim that the vaccine causes mental retardation. That's not a reported side effect, and, in fact, the vaccine has a strong safety profile.
Some religious or antivaccine websites also push another common objection to the vaccine: that kids will engage in reckless sex if they know they're protected against HPV.
But, "my perspective is that you don't drive into light poles because you have seat belts and air bags,'' said the Minnesota Department of Health's Kris Ehresmann, who sat on the vaccine advisory panel.
Lost in the unproductive HPV debate is that the virus causes about 22,000 cancer cases each year in the United States -- 7,000 of them in men and 15,000 in women. Many people are aware that HPV causes cervical cancer in women.
But too few understand that it's linked to other fearsome forms of the disease, including vaginal cancer, cancers of the head and neck, and anal and penile cancer.
Limiting the vaccine recommendations to one gender ignores men's serious HPV health risks and their responsibility to help stop its spread.
Parents have an obligation not only to vaccinate sons and daughters, but to ensure that the shots are accompanied by conversations about responsibility and family values.
The vaccine does not replace these discussions. Instead, it protects teens and young adults from paying too high a price if that parental wisdom is ignored.
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