The HPV vaccine, recommended for girls, prevents anal cancer when given… (Joe Raedle / Getty Images )
A government panel now recommends that the vaccine against human papillomavirus should be routinely given to boys as well as girls. Our question is: What took so long?
Gardasil, the vaccine developed by Merck, protects against the HPV strains most likely to cause cervical cancer. Because its purpose is to reduce this scourge, it always made sense to treat it as a public health issue and vaccinate those who might spread the virus along with those who might actually get sick.
The federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended in 2009 that the vaccine be made available to boys because of its ability to prevent genital warts, which can afflict males as well as females. The following year, the FDA approved Gardasil for the prevention of anal cancer, and last week, the immunization panel strengthened its stance, advising that boys as young as 9 should routinely receive the vaccination to prevent that potentially deadly illness as well.
It was the right recommendation, but the reasons for broadening the vaccine's use are much bigger. Just as contraception and family planning should be seen as societal health issues rather than solely "women's issues," so should the medical battle against a form of cancer that was diagnosed in about 12,000 American women in 2007. The most effective way to provide protection is with the widest possible use of vaccination.
This page came out against early efforts to require the vaccine for young girls when Gardasil was approved by the FDA in 2006 as a preventive measure for HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection, with 6.2 million new cases in the country each year. But that wasn't because we agreed with politicians who claimed that inoculation would encourage young people to engage in premarital sex. Rather, it was reasonable with a new product to give parents a chance to see its safety record over time.
In the five years since then, Gardasil has built a solid safety record, yet the full series of three doses has been given to only about one-third of the age-appropriate girls. As for concerns that giving the vaccine to teenagers and preteens might send the wrong message, the best way to combat that is with the right information: Gardasil does not guard against all strains of HPV, nor will it protect against other sexually transmitted diseases. But if widely administered, it will reduce rates of suffering and death. The most important message to send to youngsters is that their health matters.