Why Are Boys Getting The HPV Vaccine?


by Hayley Pincott

The HPV vaccine has been given to girls since it was introduced in 2006 and is used to prevent cervical cancer. If you had this vaccination in school, you may remember it as the day where all the boys thought it was funny to go around hitting the girls in the arm. Luckily, the boys will no longer be able to pick on the girls after getting this vaccination, as they will be getting it too! But why are boys having the HPV vaccine even though they don’t have a cervix?! Good question.


It’s a lesser known fact that some head and neck cancers can actually be caused by HPV. Head and neck (H&N) cancers are a very visual type of cancer- if you had to have half your mandible (jaw) removed then you can’t really hide it from the world! Also, with some cancers they have to remove some of the tissue from your neck, in order to look at the lymph nodes, to see if the cancer has spread. When the lymph nodes are looked at, it’s not unusual to see some cancerous deposit in the nodes closest to the tumour. Any deposit in those nodes furthest away from the tumour is an indication that the cancer has spread, which is not a good sign.


H&N cancers are on the increase and over 90% of H&N cancers are preventable. Let's take a look at a few more statistics:


  • There are 35 new cases of H&N cancers diagnosed every day.

  • 11 people die of H&N cancer every day.

  • There is a 30% increase in H&N cancers since the 1990’s

  • In 25-49 yr old males there has been a rise of 36% of H&N cancer and a rise of 50% in females in the same age group.


These are quite scary statistics however please be encouraged by the fact that these types of cancer are hugely preventable, by making the right lifestyle choices. Most of us know that smoking can cause lung cancer and some of us might know it can cause some cancers of the mouth. But, did you know that drinking alcohol can also increase your risk of cancers of the mouth? This means that drinking and smoking increases your risk even further, as they act as an accelerant to each other, leaving heavy smokers and drinkers with a higher risk of mouth cancers.

 

Many head and neck cancers are caused by poor lifestyle choices, however, some H&N cancers can be caused by HPV. There are many different strains of HPV, most are harmless and just cause abnormal growths like warts, however, there are 2 strains that are high risk for causing cancer, HPV 16 and HPV 18.


So how do we catch this virus? Well, HPV is actually caught from skin contact through sexual activity and is the most common sexually transmitted illness. Many people get HPV infections and never know they have because there are no symptoms. Usually, our immune system can get rid of the virus, but in a few people, the virus stays. The virus then invades healthy cells and damages the DNA in the cells. This damaged DNA, mixed with the HPV DNA, causes the cells to divide and grow out of control, producing a cancerous tumour.

As cervical cancer is predominantly caused by HPV, the vaccination was initially just given to girls. Vaccinating the girls also protected the boys through ‘herd immunity’. Herd immunity is where a certain population are protected against a disease because a high enough number of people have been vaccinated against that disease. However, with the increase in head and neck cancers being diagnosed and many of these cases being linked to HPV, it was decided to introduce boys to the HPV vaccine.

There are currently no HPV screening tests, so it’s really important for women over 25 years old to attend invitations to have a cervical smear, as this is the only way to see if there is any abnormal cell growth. It’s also really important to have a regular dental check-up because your dentist can check your oral cavity for any abnormalities. Getting the vaccine not only helps to protect you against HPV, but it also protects other too. On top of the vaccination, making good lifestyle choices can reduce risks even further. Not smoking, limiting your alcohol intake, making sure you eat healthily and getting plenty of exercise are all ways of making sure your immune system can deal with any HPV infections it comes across!

So, there you have it, HPV vaccinations don’t only prevent cervical cancers, but can also prevent other HPV-derived cancers. This means that boys are being vaccinated against other HPV complications, rather than cervical cancer!

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