More males are getting HPV vaccines, but still far fewer than ideal: study

Vaccine vaccination
The HPV vaccination rate in males in the U.S. has more than tripled but is still well below the 80% national target, a study finds. (Pixabay)

Since the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices started recommending the HPV vaccine in men in 2011, the vaccination rate in the gender group in the U.S. has more than tripled, a new study finds, but that’s still far below the health community’s expectation.

The percentage of men nine to 26 years of age who received at least one dose of the HPV vaccine jumped from 7.8% in 2011 to 27.4% in 2016, according to a study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

Gender disparity, though closing, is still quite obvious though, as HPV vaccine uptake in females of the same age group has increased to 45.7%, slightly up from 37.7% five years earlier.

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The researchers noted in their study that the vaccination rates are still well below national targets. As HHS laid out in the Healthy People 2020 plan, the objective is to have 80% of both teenage boys and girls aged 13-15 years finish the HPV vaccine regimen.

HPV vaccination is recommended for 11- to 12-year-olds in the U.S. It can be given to children as young as nine years old, and catchup shots are recommended for those aged up to 26.

RELATED: New study could boost vaccination argument for Merck's Gardasil

Based on an evaluation of clinical trial data by experts on the ACIP, in October 2016 CDC cut the doses required for children younger than 15 to two jabs.

“This recommendation will make it simpler for parents to get their children protected in time,” said then-CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D.

At about the same time, the CDC started asking doctors to emphasize HPV shots’ cancer-prevention function instead of promoting it as an anti-STD tool in an effort to remove the sex stigma linked to low uptake rates. Given the time span of the study, the boosting effect from these recent updates were not included.

RELATED: Merck’s Gardasil protects over 10 years and provides stronger protection if given sooner: study

Despite health authorities’ efforts to desexualize HPV, a recent study based on data from the National Immunization Survey-Teen found that doctors were less likely to offer the vaccine to boys compared with girls, ABC News reported.

The relatively low vaccination rate among men is also partly because it was first viewed as guarding against cervical cancer. That's what Eshan Patel, the lead author of the Journal of Infectious Diseases study, told Reuters. But the fact is that different strains of the virus can cause genital warts, and can also lead to penile or anal cancer, as well as certain head and neck cancers—all possible in males.

And the warning comes as incidences of head and neck cancers, notably in younger males, have increased dramatically in recent years, with some, such as oropharyngeal cancer, believed in part to be related to certain HPV strains targeted by vaccination. Men are less likely to clear the infection than women, with some seeing the higher rates as possibly due to an increase in the practice of oral sex, which can spread the virus. 

Except for cervical cancer, there’s no screening for the other HPV-related cancers, according to the CDC, so it’s important to prevent infection with vaccinations.

After GlaxoSmithKline pulled its bivalent HPV vaccine Cervarix from the U.S. market, Merck’s Gardasil and Gardasil 9 are the only remaining HPV shots available. In the U.S., Merck reported sales of the vaccines climbed to $1.78 billion in 2016, but declined to $1.57 billion for 2017. It attributed $125 million in reduction to the temporary production shut down from the cyber-attack, which resulted in its decision to borrow shots from the CDC’s stockpile.