“Are you serious right now?”
I glared up at my doctor, who had just informed me that I needed the HPV vaccine. Today, I was supposed to have a normal doctor’s appointment. Which, in Colin’s perfect world, means no needles.
My doctor looked back at me with a nervous look. I am notoriously known at the office for my extreme distaste for needles. And yet, each and every time I visit my doctor, there is always a different reason for them to shove another syringe into my arm- whether it’s for blood work, a new vaccine, or even a steroid injection for mono. I joke that they make up reasons just so the nurses get another chance to torment me.
My doctor had even worse news about my upcoming fight with the nurse who’d be giving me the vaccine. The HPV vaccine is administered in three rounds, which means I’d be setting up two more appointments just for the vaccine.
I thought I was in healthcare hell.
“Why do I need this? I thought that this is only a problem if you have sex with women. And, well, you know, I’m gay, so I don’t need this, right?” I looked up at my doctor hopefully.
I was very wrong. In fact, I had just uttered one of the most common misconceptions about HPV – that it’s only a concern for women. Actually, HPV is a concern for everyone.
HPV, or the human papillomavirus, is the most common sexually transmitted disease in humans. It’s estimated that in the United States, 79 million people are currently infected with HPV and all sexually active people will have HPV at some point in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Half of new infections occur before a person is 24.
There are over 200 different strains of HPV, which can all cause different problems. Some cause warts, either genital or non-genital, or have no symptoms at all. These strains are considered “low risk” HPV. “High risk” HPV, specifically strains 16 and 18, can cause cancer.
It’s not just a concern for women – it’s a concern for men, too. These strains of HPV can cause anal and mouth/throat cancer in both sexes, cervix, vulva, and vaginal cancer in women, and penile cancer in men. 91 percent of anal cancers and 72 percent of mouth/ throat cancers are caused by HPV. 17,500 women and 9,300 men are affected by HPV-related cancers each year in the United States.
Most of these cases could have been prevented by the vaccine.
The HPV vaccine is administered in three injections over a period of six months and can protect against these cancer-causing strains of HPV. Despite this, most men haven’t received the HPV vaccine. A study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year found that only 10% of men in the United States have received the vaccine.
That’s insane. We have a vaccine that can prevent certain cancers and 90 percent of men haven’t received it.
It’s so important for men to receive the vaccine – not just to prevent themselves from getting HPV-related cancers, but to also protect others that they have sexual contact with who may not be vaccinated.
Also, while there are Pap tests to detect strains of HPV that cause cervical cancer in women, there are no current FDA approved screening tests for men. If a man develops a high-risk strain of HPV, there’s really no way to test for it.
I hated to admit that I needed another needle in my arm, but my doctor was right. In that moment, I decided that this was something I needed for myself and for others, even if that meant getting a shot. I wanted to be a part of the 10 percent.
I guess, in Colin’s perfect world, there is a place where his doctor’s appointment includes needles.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Human papillomavirus-associated cancers- United States, 2004-2008. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2012; 61(15): 258-261.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016, December). Diseases and the Vaccines That Prevent Them: HPV. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/parents/diseases/teen/hpv-indepth-color.pdf
Han, J. J., Beltran, T. H., Song, J. W., Klaric, J., & Choi, Y. S. (2017, January 19th). Prevalence of Genital Human Papillomavirus Infection and Human Papillomavirus Vaccination Rates Among US Adult Men. JAMA Oncology, 3(6), 810-816.