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Nobel laureate calls for HPV vaccine for boys

Gardasil could prevent anal and penile cancers

The Nobel Prize winning pioneer of human papilloma virus (HPV) research is calling for the vaccination of boys against HPV.

Speaking at the MaRS Centre in Toronto on Oct 21, Dr Harald zur Hausen argued that vaccination against the viruses, which can lead to cervical cancer in women, is also important to men since they too are susceptible to developing cancers related to HPV.

Zur Hausen said men, like women, need to be protected from the more dangerous strains of the virus, HPV-16 and -18, which can contribute to the development of anal and penile cancer.

The announcement came hours before the release of a report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which confirmed that after two years of clinical usage Gardasil remains safe for human use, citing no elevated risk for neurological complications. The vaccine was approved for use in both Canada and the United States two years ago.

Philippe Brideau, media relations officer for Public Health Agency Canada, said Gardasil has been found to be, “effective and the vaccine is safe, and should be used.” He said there have been no major reactions reported.

Health Canada estimates nearly 75 percent of sexually active men and women will be infected with HPV at least once in their lifetime. While most strains of the virus are of little danger, mainly producing genital warts, it can lead to the development of cancer in both males and females.

Men who have sex with men are at even higher risk, according to studies by the CDC that claim gay and bisexual men may be up to 17 times more likely to develop anal cancer than heterosexual men.

There is also an increased risk of developing cancers of the throat. A 2007 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found a link between the presence of HPV and a development of oropharyngeal cancer, showing those with HPV had a 32 times higher risk of development.

Most people will eventually eliminate HPV from their body, but those who are HIV-positive or have a compromised immune system are at a greater risk from the virus, making treatment for things like genital warts more difficult.

But the HPV vaccine is not approved for use in males, though Merck, the manufacturer, is holding clinical trials to determine the effectiveness of Gardasil on men.

Sheila Murphy, a spokesperson for Merck, said she is hopeful that preliminary data for the study will be available soon.

“There is going to be a [peer reviewed] meeting in Europe in November, and I was hoping there would be some data presented there, and I still haven’t heard weather that is going to be the case or not,” Murphy said on Oct 27.

When asked if the study could become bogged down by bureaucracy, Murphy was clear that public interest was high.

“We’re talking about a vaccine that prevents cancer, and that will prevent cancer in men… so there’s no question,” she says.

“People are waiting for these results, people like yourselves are clamouring for them.”

But even after the release of preliminary data from the female study, Murphy said it took, “another two years before we had approval of the vaccine, so I would imagine we’re another two or three years away.”

Other countries have allowed boys to be given the vaccine, she said, based on the initial studies on Gardasil. “In Canada… they want us to do the efficacy studies, to show in fact that the vaccine, not only does it cause an immune response recognition, but it actually prevents a disease.”