In the US, it’s estimated that a majority (75 percent to 80 percent) of men and women will be infected with the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). With about 6 million new cases of genital HPV every year (there are over 30 genital HPV types) and a majority of these (about 74 percent) of them occurring in 15-24 year olds, there is huge unmet need for effective prevention programs directed to youth.
The new HPV vaccines protect against the two types of HPV that cause a majority of cervical cancer and genital warts cases. These vaccines, however, are only effective if they are taken BEFORE someone is infected with HPV. HPV often has no signs or symptoms and partners engaging in sex (or any other kind of genital contact) may be transmitting HPV without even knowing they have it. Recently the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended HPV vaccination for girls and women ages 11 to 26 and have stated that Gardasil can also be given to boys and men ages 9 to 26. In women HPV can cause serious health problems including genital warts, cervical cancer, vaginal cancer and vulvar cancer. These cancers can cause death or infertility in women. Men on the other hand usually only develop genital warts. While a small percentage of men develop HPV-related cancer of the anus or penis, it is much less common.
Subsequently, I believe that men have a pretty important role to play in the prevention of HPV. The likelihood of developing cervical cancer is greatly reduced if the vaccine is used. Unfortunately, it is too common for women (particularly women of color) to have barriers to screening services or accessing this vaccine because of the stigma around accessing sexual health services. This reality makes it even more important for men to seek the vaccine and to encourage the women in their lives (particularly
(Photo Credit: http://www.gardasil.com/hpv)
the ones they are having sex with) to also receive the vaccine. I have encouraged many of the women in my life to get the vaccine whether or not they have been sexually active or think they are at risk. Men have the same responsibility to help prevent HPV even if they do not suffer the same consequences as women. As allies, men can play an important role in helping to reduce HPV transmission. It’s time that men stand in solidarity with our friends, sisters and mothers by encouraging them to seek pap smears as part of a well-women’s annual checkup as well as the HPV vaccine.
Speaking of mothers, my own mama had such a hard time talking about her own health growing up. I remember her waiting for us to leave for school before she would call our neighbor to talk about a yeast infection she once had. This kind of taboo, to not even want to say the word “vagina” like it was some sort of dirty word only reinforced my ideas as a kid that we weren’t supposed to talk about our bits and pieces. I was lucky to even get a pack of condoms on my nightstand when she thought I was having sex with a note that said “no seas guey” (don’t be dumb).
(Photo Credit http://www.gardasil.com/hpv)
Growing up in an undocumented Latino family we never dreamed of going to the hospital unless our arm had actually fallen off, yet alone to receive preventive care. Our fear of getting deported was much worse than the fear of cervical cancer. Growing up I’ve had to learn to talk about sex and sexual health in a way that resonates with my mother and with my siblings. At times it can be hard, but for the women in my family, I knew it would be the only way I could convince them to talk to a doctor and get the care they needed. They may roll their eyes or not want to talk about it, but I care about the health of the vaginas in my family, just like all men should care about the vaginas in theirs.
What do you see as the role of men and boys? How can you advocate for the health of women in your life?