Why This Feminist Cares About Men’s Health

On February 17, the pharmaceutical company Merck published research indicating new findings about its HPV vaccine, Gardasil. The studies show that it is effective against more than just cervical cancer and HPV diseases in girls and women ages 9 to 26, and against more than just genital warts in boys and men: it also prevents anal precancers in males, and HPV-related diseases (including cervical cancer) in women 27 to 45 years old. The Center for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) then met Feb. 24-25 to discuss potential new uses of the vaccine. It will be interesting to see what, if any, changes result.

Those who’ve followed research on the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV)–four strains of which Gardasil protects against–were not surprised by the findings of either study. What has surprised me is how little attention ‘male’ Gardasil has attracted since receiving FDA approval last October. Writing a feature article for the Winter 2010 issue of Ms. on the subject gave me the opportunity to raise awareness about the full range of male HPV-related cancers that Gardasil might also prevent.

So this post is inspired by my desire to respond to some of the interesting questions, comments and accusations that I’ve received via the blogosphere (like WashingtonCityPaper and HugoSchwyzer) in these first days following the publication of my article.

My article’s title seems to have pushed more than a few buttons: Apparently not everyone wants to know “Why Men’s Health is a Feminist Issue.” One commenter asked, Why does the burden for sexual health need to fall, yet again, to women? My response: It’s a burden for only girls/women to be responsible for sexual health, so prioritizing equal access to vaccines against sexually transmitted diseases results in a more fair sharing of this ‘”urden.”

From the opposite side, a comment criticized this angle as being self-interested: …When feminists speak of male health issues, it is usually in the context of the way they affect women. To that, I reply: If you read the full article, you’ll see that boys/men have plenty of reasons to care about having access to this vaccine that have to do with protecting their own health, regardless of whether or not they ever have a female sexual partner.

This leads to another type of response: What’s in it for men? Or, as one commenter put it, The only reason for males to get the vaccine would be to prevent HPV in women. Really? How about the variety of serious HPV-related male cancers (oral, penile, anal and others) that are on the rise, and often fatal due to lack of accurate testing/screening? In fact, those cancers in the U.S. result in more combined deaths in men than cervical cancers do in women. (See my Ms. article for an overview of these stats or, if you love charts, check out page four of the American Cancer Society’s 2009 report).

Finally, there are questions and concerns whether Gardasil does more harm than good. For the record, I have not taken a pro- or anti-vaccine stance on Gardasil, let alone any other vaccine. But I do speak in favor of equal access to vaccines, support  medical studies that reveal the potential health costs and benefits of any vaccine, urge media coverage of the full range of those costs and benefits and argue for funding public-health campaigns about HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Although some blog comments reveal confusion over the possibility of being required to get the Gardasil vaccine, I’m not aware of any current U.S. vaccination policy that does not allow for opting out. (And as of December 14, 2009, Gardasil was no longer required for women green-card applicants.)

Thanks to all of the journalists, blog authors and commenters who are raising awareness about this topic. I don’t know if the pro- and anti-vaccine folks will ever see eye to eye, but there’s absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain by being pro-HPV-education.

Note: The original version of the post was published on Girl w/Pen.


  1. Very good column. I find it especially interesting in light of the men’s rights types who whine that women’s health issues (particularly breast cancer) get so much media attention and funding, and they want to see the attention and funding go away from breast cancer and go to prostate cancer research. Guys, health is not a zero-sum game. I do see your one commenter’s point about women not having to be responsible for men’s health issues. Too often women are seen as the world’s caretakers who are told they must deal with everyone else’s issues (including health), and to concentrate on women’s issues alone is seen as being selfish. (Remember that familiar stopper?) I’d prefer that men take on the sacrifices and work on their own health issues the way women have done on their own health issues, in particular breast cancer. I do agree with you though that giving attention to the vaccine as it applies to men also benefits women. It’s great to raise awareness on this topic.

  2. A safe, effective vaccine should be available for girls/women AND boys/men. Mens health IS a feminist issue, as health care is a matter of justice, or unfortunately, too often, lack thereof. Yes, preventing HPV in men will prevent cases in women….AND in men. Oral, anal and cervical cancers can be prevented – and will benefit all. I am amazed at the uproar about this vaccine, when Hepatitis B vaccines became a matter of course without so much as a whimper. If recommendations for the vaccine result from a public health prevention guideline, then it is more likely to be paid for by insurance companies and Medicaid.

  3. feminish says:

    I finished the Gardasil series, and it does only prevent against four strands of HPV, but it’s still worth getting vaccinated over not, in my opinion.

  4. Thanks for your comments. Elizabeth, like you, I am hopeful that ‘male’ Gardasil becomes an incentive for men to take more responsibility for their sexual health — whether they choose to get vaccinated, get tested/screened, and/or to learn more about how to prevent the spread of HPV. Norma, you’re right that vaccine costs tend to go down when a vaccine is recommended as “routine.” And, feminish, I wanted to let you know that there are some published findings that Gardasil, while specifically designed to protect against only 4 strains of HPV, has been shown to also reduce the incidence of HPV 31 and HPV 45 (though, at a lower efficacy rate than the 4 strains for which it was specifically designed).

  5. Jodi Speakman says:

    My daughter, Victoria, has been ill since February 2008. She had her first Gardasil vaccination in November 2007. Her second vaccination was in the beginning of February 2008. Immediately after her second vaccination, Victoria experienced severe diarrhea, vomiting and was nauseous for about eight weeks. She had blood work done many times and the pediatrician thought she had a virus. On March 31, 2008, she had her first seizure. My daughter has treated with many neurologists, all of whom have not related her seizures to Gardasil. Meanwhile, there are quite a few hundred people that I have found over the internet through my numerous postings and through Erin Brockovich, and their daughters are all experiencing the same symptoms, which occurred after the Gardasil vaccination. We have actually formed a group and share our daughters’ stories, symptoms and information. My daughter has had CT scans, MRI’s, MRA’s, EEG’s, blood work and was hospitalized at an epilepsy center in the video EEG monitoring unit for two separate weeks in May 2008 and September 2008. A follow-up MRI was performed and a spinal tap was recently attempted, but was unsuccessful. Victoria later underwent a lumbar puncture with fluoroscopy. She was put on many different seizure medications. After the normal EEG results, she was taken off all medications. Her SED rate has always been high and she does have protein in her urine, but doctors do not seem concerned. I was told that her red blood are small, but this apparently is not concerning either. She is also slightly anemic.
    My daughter has been seen by several neurologists, a psychiatrist, psychologist, several neuropsychologists, an immunologist, several infectious disease doctors, and also treated a at Wellness Center for a period of time.
    My daughter currently experiences the following symptoms: non-epileptic seizures, migraines, fainting, various tremors, twitches and numbness, intermittent leg paralysis and facial paralysis, tingling, staring or blank episodes, eye pain, joint pain, neck pain, back pain, memory loss, confusion, brain fog, regression, mood swings, hair loss and chronic fatigue. She continues to have bouts of nausea and diarrhea. She has not been in school since April 2008. My daughter can never be left home alone. She can’t go to school, go out with her friends or work or has little “normalcy” in her life. She has very few good days and always says she doesn’t feel good.

    I do not know which way to turn for help. We have seen so many doctors and I can’t seem to find anyone willing to help my daughter. There are so many other young girls who have the same exact symptoms as my daughter and the one thing that all of the girls seem to have in common is the Gardasil vaccination.
    There are no “traditional medical doctors” who relate my daughter’s symptoms to Gardasil as I am told “there is not enough information available” about the vaccine and doctors believe it to be “safe” . Most recently, a neurologist informed that he does believe that my daughter’s symptoms were brought on by the vaccine, just not in a way that he could test or prove.

    There are some doctors who are making the correlation between Gardasil and many of the girls’ symptoms. Other doctors are willing to “try” treatment, most of which is “homeopathic” in nature and extremely costly. Once again, I must reiterate that there are so many other young girls experiencing negative symptoms.
    Each night, I check on my daughter many times in the middle of the night to make sure she is still breathing (like we ALL did when they were babies).

    I often cry and wonder if Victoria will be next one to die from adverse reactions to Gardasil.

    We are in desperate need of medical treatment for my daughter. I have run out of ideas, doctors to treat with and finances have dwindled. I do not know which direction to turn. Any thoughts are most appreciated, especially from the medical community.
    Please feel free to forward this information.
    Thank you for your time and attention.
    Jodi Speakman
    (267) 939-0591

    P.S. Victoria is one of five girls mentioned on the NVIC website. Victoria’s story appeared on the front page of the Philadelphia Weekly Newspaper in June 2009 and also mentioned on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer in August 2009. A Fox news story recently aired as well.




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