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U.S. Advisory Panel Urges Controversial HPV Vaccine for Boys, Young Men

An influential U.S. advisory panel is urging that boys and young men be vaccinated against HPV, a controversial recommendation that would  expand the use of an immunization intended to prevent cancers related to sexual activity.

The recommendation by the panel  follows five years of efforts by health authorities to encourage girls ages 11 to 26 to receive the vaccine –a push that has been resisted by many American families.

HPV, or human papillomavirus, is the most common sexually transmitted disease. As The New York Times reports, between 75 percent and 80 percent of women and men in the U.S. will be infected by the virus at some point in their lives.

“Most will fight off the virus with no ill effects,” The Times said. “But in some people, infections lead to cellular changes that cause warts or cancer, including cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers in women and anal cancer in men. A growing body of evidence suggests that HPV also causes throat cancers in men and women as a result of oral sex.”

The HPV shots have triggered concerns because, along with raising worries about vaccine safety in general, they call on parents to consider the sexual behavior of their children. As The Associated Press reports, some parents worry that the vaccine promotes promiscuous behavior.

Even though the vaccine is expected to prevent disease among females who have sex with vaccinated boys and young men, the males most likely to be shielded from disease tend to be homosexuals.

The vaccine has become an issue in the campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been criticized for trying to require vaccinations for girls in his state. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., has wrongly suggested that the vaccine is linked to mental retardation.

HPV infections account for an estimated 22,000 cancers annually.  Anal cancer rates among men and women are on the increase, while cervical cancers have dropped dramatically since the 1970s.  Head and neck cancers, which are linked with oral sex, also have increased.

The three-dose HPV vaccination regimen costs pediatricians more than $300, and patients often are charged hundreds of dollars more. Most of the cost could be covered by private insurers, however, because the industry typically follows the panel’s recommendations.

The panel — known as the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — recommended the vaccinations for boys and young men ages 11 to 21.

“This is the first time we have a vaccine that is primarily designed to prevent cancer,” said Dr. Joseph Bocchini, a panel member and an infectious diseases expert with Louisiana State University. “It’s an important opportunity for the improvement of women’s health by reducing cervical cancer, and now we have the opportunity to prevent cancer in men.”

ROBERT T. NELSON