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Can gay men get the HPV vaccine? Everything to know

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What is HPV?

While Human papillomavirus (HPV) is mostly discussed in regards to its link to cervical cancer in women, men aren’t off the hook when it comes to other cancers and conditions associated with HPV. 

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. It’s a viral infection that commonly causes warts. HPV is spread through intimate skin-to-skin contact, and nearly all men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives. 

There are over 100 types of HPV. Most infections are asymptomatic and undetectable, but others can cause warts, and even progress to different types of cancer later in life. Most HPV infections don’t lead to cancer, but the types that do have been linked to cancers of the cervix, anus, penis, vagina, vulva, and back of the throat (oropharyngeal).

HPV in Gay and Bisexual Men

Men are more likely than women to have oral HPV and high-risk oral HPV infections. Also, genital HPV and high-risk genital HPV infections are higher in men than women.

Gay and bisexual men in the US in particular have higher risks of HPV infection and higher rates of HPV-associated anal cancer than heterosexual men. Studies have found that anal HPV prevalence among men who have sex with men is at least twice as high as it is among men who have sex with women exclusively. 

Plus, gay and bisexual men in the US are carrying more of the high-risk strains of HPV than gay and bisexual men in other regions. A recent study showed that men who have sex with men and transgender women in the US had higher rates of HPV 16 and HPV 6, compared to other regions. HPV16 is the most common HPV type detected in HPV-positive noncervical cancers, and HPV6 is directly linked to HPV-associated genital warts and recurrent respiratory papillomatosis. 

A Rutgers School of Public Health study found that few young gay and bisexual men get the HPV vaccine, despite its availability and efficacy at preventing HPV-related cancers.

HPV infection adds even more health burdens to this population, which is a special concern for individuals who are HIV positive because HIV infection increases the risk of developing HPV-related cancers. 

Elaborating on this, Perry Halkitis, the lead author of the Rutgers study and dean of Rutgers School of Public Health said, “We are already witnessing higher rates of HPV-related cancers in older gay and sexual minority men, which is completely avoidable and preventable in more recent generations.” He added, “Additionally, we know that those living with HIV are much more likely to be impacted by HPV infection and HPV-related cancers. Given that sexual minority men are also at highest risk for testing positive for HIV, there is an urgency in ensuring HPV vaccination before these young men engage in sexual behavior.”

Can and Should Gay and Bisexual Men Get the HPV Vaccine?

Yes and yes. Gay and bisexual men should get the HPV vaccine. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the HPV vaccine for all boys and girls at ages 11-12. 

If an individual is getting the vaccine before age 15, they should get two doses at least six months apart. If an adolescent receives their second dose less than five months after the first, they will require a third dose. 

If not vaccinated already, the CDC recommends the HPV vaccine for everyone through age 26. If an individual starts their HPV vaccination series between the ages of 15 and 26, three doses are required. 

Adults aged 27 to 45 may still decide to get the HPV vaccine depending on their risk for new HPV infections and the benefits of the vaccine. However, in this age range in particular the HPV vaccine provides less benefit as more people have already been exposed to HPV. 

HPV vaccination is safe and effective. More than 135 million doses of HPV vaccines have been given since they were licensed. But, as with any vaccine, it can have mild side effects including pain or redness where the shot was given, fever, dizziness, nausea, headache or fatigue, and muscle or joint pain.

Of course, always speak with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs with regards to the HPV vaccine.

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