FORT BRAGG, N.C. — A pathbreaking new study on the spread of the potentially life-threatening human papillomavirus, or HPV, could cause a significant shift in the way the public is warned about the disease as well as the actions recommended to prevent it.
Men, it turns out, are just as likely as women to be infected with HPV, and even more likely to die from it, the study found.
Currently, most HPV publicity campaigns emphasize its prospective threat to women, largely because the disease is so closely linked to cervical cancer. But the latest study, based on data collected during the 2013-2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, shows that equal percentages of both genders – about 45% — are currently infected by the virus.
Moreover, for reasons that researchers find dumbfounding, 25% of men are exposed to the “high risk” strains of HPV, making them even more susceptible than women to cancer. And they are far less likely to see their infection rate decline over time, which leaves them increasingly vulnerable as they age, the study shows.
Currently, human papillomavirus is the nation’s most common sexually transmitted illness, typically contracted before the age of 24. Most people infected never manifest physical symptoms, but those that do, can develop one or another form of cancer — cervical cancer among women, penile cancer among men, and anal and oral cancers in both. In addition, HPV is the leading cause of genital herpes.
A simple vaccination in adolescents between 11 and 12 years old can eliminate the threat of cancer due to the virus. However, according to the new study, vaccination rates are even lower than previously thought – just 33% in women and 11% in men — leaving both genders at risk.
Women have the additional advantage of detecting HPV during a pap smear for cervical cancer, which can allow for treatment before the virus becomes life-threatening. However, there is no known screening test for the virus in men — and once cancer develops, their chances of survival diminish.
The emphasis on women and cervical cancer is understandable. Women contract HPV-related cervical cancer at 10 times the rate that men contract HPV-related penile cancer. However, in the case of HPV-related throat cancer – which actually surpasses the annual incidence rate for cervical cancer — men outpace women by 4-1.
Dr. Jasmine Han, who directed the new study at the Womack Army Medical Center, in Fort Bragg, N.C. says she has no good explanation for why men seem to retain the HPV virus so much longer than women do.
“We don’t know why it stays high in men while it drops in women. Among men it’s higher than expected,” she said in an interview with Health Day News.
Han speculates that the virus may remain in men because it survives in the penile glands, while in women the virus is near the surface of the vagina and is more easily expelled.
Results of the Ft. Bragg study could lead to a renewed push for HPV public education and prevention campaigns that focus on both genders, with a stronger emphasis on men. Past campaigns have tended to focus on HPV disease transmission during sex, with recommendation for condom use, leading to charges from conservatives that they contributed to female promiscuity in young girls.
Medical professionals hope a shift in emphasis to HPV as a cancer-causing disease will lead to higher vaccination rates, especially among boys.
The Ft. Bragg study is the first to estimate HPV infection rates for men nationwide. The study’s findings were published in January in the journal JAMA Oncology.