A vaccine used to prevent a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cancer in women is now available for men.
Human papillomavirus causes most cases of genital warts in men and women and cervical cancer in women. The HPV vaccine prevents against four strains of the virus that cause a majority of the diseases.
The vaccine, Gardasil, has been available to girls for four years and was approved for use in boys last fall. Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region started offering it last month to boys and men ages 9 to 26 at its eight clinics.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease, infecting up to 6 million Americans each year, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About half of adults will have it at some point in their lifetimes.
Most HPV infections resolve on their own but can be passed along unwittingly while the virus is active. The vaccine is most effective if received prior to the initiation of sexual activity.
“In order for us to stem the tide of HPV infection, the most hopeful remedy of course is to have both young girls and young boys vaccinated, because girls and boys give and get HPV from one another,” said Paula Gianino, local president of Planned Parenthood.
Nearly 30 million doses of Gardasil have been distributed in the U.S. since 2006. It’s unknown how many men have received the vaccine, but health experts don’t expect to see the same rates as among women.
The vaccine is given in a series of three shots over six months and costs about $400.
Gianino said she doesn’t yet have numbers of boys who have received the shots, but said interest has been growing. Some doctors’ offices have long offered the vaccine to boys by request, she said.
Gardasil is also available at student health centers at Washington University and St. Louis University.
The vaccine targets the strains of the virus that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers and 90 percent of genital warts. About 12,000 U.S. women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year. In very rare cases, HPV can also lead to penile and anal cancers.
The drugmaker Merck makes more than $1 billion each year from Gardasil, although the company recently reported that sales are down.
Critics have raised questions about the vaccine’s cost, longevity and side effects following multiple reports of teenage girls who fainted after receiving the shots.
By the end of May, there had been 16,140 reports of adverse side effects after receiving the vaccine, with 92 percent deemed minor (swelling at the injection site, headache, nausea). Serious side effects that were reported include blood clots and muscle weakness.
There have been 53 reports of deaths in U.S. girls and women who received Gardasil. Scientists have been unable to find evidence that the deaths were caused by the vaccine, according to the CDC.
Research has so far shown the vaccine to be effective for up to five years in women and three years in men. Long-term research is not available to show whether booster shots will be required.
The CDC recommends the vaccine for both men and women.
“We urge parents to get and gather as much information as possible about the vaccine and make the best decision for their son and daughter,” Gianino said.