Since I seem to be on a tear with women’s health issues this week, the WashingtonPost.com really grabbed my attention with a post on the compelling question “Will Men Get Gardasil?”
Gardasil, in case you don’t know, is the new vaccine against the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus, or HPV, which is the main cause of cervical cancer, killing over a quarter million women worldwide every year. The health risks of HPV for men, though, are relatively minor. In rare cases, it can cause penile cancer, but it’s generally harmless and men simply act as carriers, passing along the virus to women. Public health experts hope that by vaccinating men as well as women, they can doubly reduce the spread of the virus. But since HPV doesn’t really affect them, will men get vaccinated just to protect us women? A recent survey on posed that very question to a group of men between the ages of 18 and 20 at FSU:
Mary Gerend of Florida State University and a graduate student surveyed 356 male students, asking them to rate on a scale from 1 to 6 their likelihood of getting the vaccine–with 1 equaling “very unlikely” and 6 equaling “very likely.”
The men who were told about the vaccine’s potential benefits for their partners were no more likely to say they’d be interested in the vaccine than those who were just told about the benefits for themselves. Both groups had a mean score of just below 4, the researchers reported in the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases. (ed: Fun reading!.) Even those who said they were in committed relationships were no more inclined to get the shots.
This isn’t terribly surprising to me; 18 to 20 year old men are about the least altruistic beings on the planet, with a notoriously poor grasp of long-term planning and consequences, especially when it comes to sex. So asking them if they would hypothetically get a shot–ouch!–that might in the long run prevent their sexual partners from maybe getting cancer from a virus they might be carrying….eh, I can see where these guys might not connect the dots. The article also notes that given their age, it’s questionable what constitutes a “committed relationship” to them. A better group of people to ask would be parents of young boys, since the vaccine ideally should be administered just before or during puberty. It’s really parents who make the call on Gardasil these days, not young men.
Regardless, the article makes an extremely valid point:
…the researchers say the findings suggest a more forceful education campaign will be needed if the vaccine’s manufacturer, Merck, wins approval of the vaccine for men.
This is absolutely true. Everyone needs to be better educated about HPV. Because women are the primary victims of HPV-related cancer, the marketing and education efforts have been directed at them, which is fair. You have to start where the need is greatest. But men need it just as much–if not more–than we do, as I know all too well from personal experience.
When I was diagnosed with HPV I was fairly sure who I had gotten it from–because we’d been in a monogamous relationship for some time–but when I told him, he literally had no idea what I was talking about. Still, even though he didn’t really know what HPV was and there isn’t a definitive HPV test for men, he immediately disclaimed all responsibility–he was sure he couldn’t have given it to me. He’d never had an STI before and was sure I must have gotten it from someone else, and anyway, it wasn’t really his problem, since we were no longer together. I was stunned by both his ignorance and his complete disinterest. And this was an Ivy League-educated man in his late 40s, not a dumbass college dude. Needless to say, I’m 100% convinced that we have some heavy lifting to do when it comes to educating men about HPV prevention.
But besides the crucial need for education, there’s the issue of requiring vaccination. Although this article doesn’t tackle the issue head-on, it begs a critical question: should men–or boys, really–be required to get a vaccine to prevent them from spreading a possibly deadly virus, even if the virus would only harm others and not them?
My answer is HELL YES.* The goal of widespread immunization is twofold: to protect the individual from infection and to protect society from the spread of infections. This is true whether you’re talking measles or polio or HPV. Creating herd immunity is in everyone’s best interests. Men may not die of HPV-related cancers the way women do, but men are certainly affected when their wives, mothers and daughters die. Our communities are hurt by those illnesses and deaths. They devastate families, which always adversely affects society. And not to be crass, but failing to prevent disease always costs our health care system a lot of money, which drives up the cost of health care for the rest of us.
The ethics are a no-brainer—if you can stop the spread of a deadly disease by vaccinating the carriers as well as the potential victims, you are morally obligated to do so. Men need to understand the importance of being immunized against HPV, our public health system needs to require it, and we women need to promote it in every way we can, especially if we have sons who can be vaccinated. Ultimately, women will pay the price for non-vaccination, so we need to make sure that HPV vaccination–for men as well as women–is a top priority for policy-makers, parents and, frankly, everyone.
* You libertarians who hate compulsory vaccination can just shut the fuck up.