What LGBT youth should know about the HPV vaccine
October 2, 2012 | 11:00 am
(Updated: February 25, 2013 | 12:48 pm)
Many have seen the “One Less” commercials for Gardasil, one of two HPV vaccines that became available in 2006 and 2007 and are most widely known to help protect young women at risk of cervical cancer.
The human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted infection in United States, with more than 50 percent of sexually active Americans expected to contract it in their lifetimes. There are more than 100 different strains of the virus, which spreads through skin-to-skin contact and can lead to genital warts or something more serious – cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus, penis and in the back of the throat.
In the “One Less” commercials, it is evident who the vaccine is marketed toward: women under the age of 26. That’s all it was approved for until 2009, when it became approved for young men as well.
That’s important to the LGBT community, because gay and bisexual men tend to be more at risk for HPV than lesbian or bisexual women – and like many other STIs, there is a higher probability of contracting it when the exposure is through anal sex. But since HPV can be transferred through skin contact, lesbian women should still be concerned, too.
“Risk is not a manner of identity,” said Betsy Cairo, a human reproductive health doctor and certified reproductive biologist and sex educator. “It is a function of behavior. Everyone runs the risk of infection.”
But why is it limited to people under age 26? It hasn’t been tested for anyone over that age – and statistically, one in four Americans will come in contact with HPV by the age of 19. Cairo looks at this statistic and notes that it may not offer much help for already sexually active adults.
“In terms of the research, people in that age group of 27 or older have already been exposed,” Cairo said. She added that if someone is confident that they have not come into contact with the virus, they can get it from a doctor who approves of giving the vaccine to those over 26.
The “One Less” commercials advertise a vaccine that can prevent four strains of HPV: 6, 11, 16 and 18. The Gardisil shots can prevent these strains of HPV, two of which cause most genital warts, while the other two cause most HPV-related cancers. But this is not the end-all-be-all to the issue.
Although it prevents the four strains most commonly tied to cancer and genital warts, it still misses a multitude of other strains that can cause cancer or warts but have much lower incident rates. Another setback, for some, is the cost of the vaccine. The CDC reports that the average price of the shot is $130, adding up to an average $390 for the whole series of shots. Some doctors, including Betsy Cairo, say that the HPV vaccine is not a complete hit.
“There’s a lot of missed coverage,” Cairo said. “Also, if you have had any of these strains, it won’t help to protect you against that particular strain. It’s important for people to know why and what they are getting and know about the protection that the shot itself offers.”
In the end, both Cairo and the CDC agree that you should get the shot if it is right for you, but do not let it be your main line of defense from HPV. Safe sex practices, such as condoms and dental dams, can help to decrease the chance of contracting HPV but not completely. The best way to prevent HPV is to be tested and knowledgeable about the virus and your reproductive health.
If the Gardisil vaccine is something that interests you, you can talk to your doctor, pay a visit to the Department of Health or Planned Parenthood, or you can go to the CDC website for more information about the vaccine.