The HPV Vaccine is Safe, Necessary for Both Genders

A Dana-Farber doctor speaks out about the controversial vaccine.

HPV Vaccine

Vaccine photo via Shutterstock

After the media field day that ensued from Michael Douglas telling The Guardian that his throat cancer was caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually-transmitted virus that can lead to cancer that Douglas says he got from oral sex, the HPV vaccine was thrust back into the public’s attention.

Despite the catchy and pervasive “One Less” advertising campaign that took over television when the vaccine first hit the market, the shot has been the subject of several debates. Should boys be vaccinated? Is the shot safe? Why do so many people have a bad reaction? Can you really get cancer from oral sex? It’s been a controversial topic, but Dr. Robert Haddad, disease center leader for the Head and Neck Oncology Program at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, says it doesn’t have to be.

“The benefits outweigh the risks,” Haddad says of concerns that the vaccine isn’t safe. “Based on the research that’s been done and based on the FDA label for these—we have two vaccines now on the market—there’s no reason to think they are not safe.” And, Haddad says, the horror stories about people’s bad reactions to the shot shouldn’t be a reason not to consider it for yourself. “This is like any injection you get,” he says. “You could be allergic to it or you could have a reaction, but the numbers are very small.”

So the vaccine is safe, but is it really necessary? Haddad says yes. “We’ve known all along that there is an association between certain sexual practices and HPV, and oral sex is only one of them; history of multiple sexual partners is also linked to HPV infection and head and neck cancer,” he explains. “If you have the infection, your risk of developing cancer is increased. One has to be aware of that.”

And though the HPV vaccination was first marketed as a protection against cervical cancer, women aren’t the only ones who should be considering it. In fact, Haddad says HPV-related head and neck cancer affects more men than women. “We don’t have a good explanation of why more men than women are affected with cancer; that’s not really been clear,” he says. “But it’s clear when you look at the number of patients, there are more men than women affected with HPV-related head and neck cancer.”

So while the HPV vaccine has often been written off in the past or seen as optional, it may be time to reverse that thinking, regardless of your gender. And if Michael Douglas’ bizarre revelation is the catalyst for doing so, so be it.