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 for both women’s and men’s health. 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 ‘burden.”

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.

Follow our Weekly Pulse column for a weekly round-up of health and wellness news.