New evidence shows why the HPV vaccine is as important for boys as girls

Quote Originally Posted by Stat News
Earlier this year, the biotech community mourned the loss of Michael Becker, a former pharmaceutical industry executive who turned his cancer into a teaching moment. In 2018, we watched on his blog as cancer drugs failed him, as he became hale and hearty as he stopped chemo, and then as the cancer returned. The tumors invaded his bones, so he needed a cane. In July, his cancer killed him.

Becker’s cancer was caused by the human papilloma virus, or HPV. On Tuesday, researchers published new data that show how preventable his case was if only he’d had a chance to have the vaccine, Gardasil. The data also underline one of the very lessons he tried to drive home: A vaccine that is still largely seen as one for girls and women needs to be offered to boys and maybe men, too.

HPV gives 34,800 Americans cancer every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, 20,700 are women and 14,100 are men. In men, the most common HPV-caused cancer is the one Becker had: cancer of the mouth and throat. Most frequently, it’s probably transmitted through oral sex (HPV is sexually transmitted), although it could be caught in other ways, perhaps even occasionally through kissing. There are an estimated 13,500 cases of HPV oropharynx cancer each year. Of these, 11,300 are in men.

Despite the fact that thousands of men get cancer because of HPV, the message doesn’t seem to sink in. That frustrates Dr. Maura Gillison, an MD Anderson oncologist who was among the first to notice an emerging epidemic of HPV throat cancers two decades ago.

“It’s still in the public perception that HPV is largely a problem for women,” Gillison told STAT. “I think people have to be aware that the burden of HPV positive oropharynx cancer in men in the United States now exceeds the burden of cervical cancer diagnosed each year.” Although survival rates are relatively high for these patients, treating these cancers is grueling for the patient and expensive for the health care system. The idea that tumors could be prevented with a few shots is bracing.

“I just know that I don’t have a single patient who wouldn’t swap two or three shots for what I do to them to try to save their life,” Gillison said.

But Gillison has been frustrated for years because Gardasil, the HPV vaccine used in the U.S., is not approved to prevent cancers of the mouth and throat. Merck, its maker, wouldn’t be likely to mention the potential benefit in advertisements. Though most experts have little doubt that the vaccine prevents HPV infections anywhere in the body and therefore the resulting cancers, technically, this has not been proven.