HPV vaccine offers some protection to men who aren’t vaccinated, study finds

Benefits of the HPV vaccine extend beyond those who receive the shots: When young women and girls are vaccinated, unvaccinated young men may be protected from HPV-related cancers, according to new research published Tuesday.

HPV, or human papillomavirus, is the leading cause of cervical cancer, and can also cause other cancers, including cancers of the penis, head and neck.

The new study, in the journal JAMA, found that infection rates of oral cancer-related HPV strains in unvaccinated men decreased from 2.7 percent in 2009-10 to 1.6 percent in 2015-16, reflecting a possible herd immunity effect from the vaccine.

The new findings weren’t a surprise, but they did come as a relief, said a study co-author, Dr. Maura Gillison, a thoracic head and neck oncologist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

HPV-positive head and neck cancers are the most rapidly increasing cancers among young men in the U.S., Gillison said. “The HPV vaccine is our best hope to reverse those trends.”

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all people through age 26 be vaccinated against HPV. The vaccine has been recommended for young women and girls since 2006 to prevent genital infections that can lead to cervical cancer, and for young men and boys since 2011 to prevent genital and anal HPV infection.

But there hasn’t been enough clinical data to recommend the vaccine for preventing oral HPV infections, Gillison said.

To take a closer look at the possibility that giving HPV shots to women and girls might help protect unvaccinated men, the researchers analyzed data from 13,676 adult men from four cycles of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) in 2009 through 2016. As a part of NHANES, men were asked to swish a mouthwash around in their mouths and then spit into a container. That fluid was then tested for various strains of HPV.