Study finds HPV vaccine also protects against anal cancer

There's a new reason to get adolescent boys vaccinated against HPV, or human papillomavirus, the most common sexually transmitted infection: It could prevent cancer.

Already approved for use in boys to prevent genital warts, and in girls to prevent genital warts and cervical cancer, a study in today's New England Journal of Medicine says the vaccine also protects against anal cancer. The study's lead author, Dr. Anna Giuliano, a researcher and chairwoman of cancer epidemiology at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, said information from the study led the Food and Drug Administration recently to expand its approval of the vaccine Gardasil to include prevention of anal cancer.

"Our study shows it's a fantastic way to prevent cancer in both men and women with a simple three-dose series of vaccine," she said Wednesday. "That's the bottom line, and that's exciting."

Gardasil, made by Merck (which helped pay for the study), protects against four common types of HPV, including the types associated with most cervical cancers in women and those associated with most genital warts in adolescents and young adults. The vaccines can be given from ages 9 through 26 (it's most effective before sexual activity starts), and is given in three doses over several months.

HPV is less commonly associated with cancers of the vulva and vagina in females and cancers of the penis, tongue, tonsils and throat in males.

But most of those eligible don't get the vaccine, although it has been available since 2006 and is covered by most insurance plans. Giuliano said only 23 percent of females nationwide receive all three doses, and boys and men lag even further behind. "I'm sure it's really, really low for males. We're not doing well in getting vaccine out there."

While the vaccine is approved for boys, the FDA does not recommend it as it does for girls. "Right now, if the parent brings it up the doctor will provide the vaccine," Giuliano said. "This vaccine protects against cancer and genital warts in both men and women. It's licensed and available and the community should take advantage of this prevention opportunity."

An accompanying column in the journal by a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health lauded the new study, but noted it may be too soon to recommend all boys get the vaccine. Among the reasons: Given how rare anal cancer is compared with cervical cancer, the $400 vaccine series might not be as cost effective from a public health perspective in boys as it is girls. That could change, the article noted, if more evidence of its value in preventing other cancers accumulates or the vaccine price comes down.

. FAST FACTS

How common

is HPV?

20 million Americans have some form of human papillomavirus, but many don't know it because it often has no symptoms and can go away on its own.

HPV-related cancers

• 12,000 American women get cervical cancer each year.

• 2,700 women and 1,700 men get anal cancer each year in the United States.

Study finds HPV vaccine also protects against anal cancer 02/02/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 2, 2011 5:33pm]

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