BY Sam Knew, MSW
It seems week after week we read about one three letter acronym after another that can affect our health, but here’s
one you may now be as familiar with – HPV (human papillomavirus). For gay and bisexual men, it can be a secret killer. There are 6.2 millions cases in the U.S each year and over one hundred strains of the virus, forty of which are transmitted sexually. In previous years there have been studies linking HPV to cervical cancer, which encouraged the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve a vaccine for women. Recently, the FDA has also approved a vaccine for young males (9-26). But now there is talk about protecting the rest of our population, seeing as studies have linked HPV to genital infections – as well as some forms of cancers.
The virus in men can typically go undetected and untreated for a lifetime, or until more severe infections and diseases develop. In some cases the virus can develop into genital warts, in areas of the penis, testicles, groin, thigh and anus. These cauliflower like warts tend not to be painful and disappear shortly after they appear, creating a misguided sense of recovery. Genital warts affect about one percent of sexually active men. And although symptoms may disappear or the warts can be treated and removed, they can always reappear – making treatment a life-long process. However, you may have bigger problems than warts to deal with in the long run.
Gay and bisexual men are 17% more likely to develop anal cancer. In addition, HPV increases those risks, especially for individuals with weakened immune systems, such as men with HIV. Individuals with anal cancer can experience bleeding, pain, itching or discharge. Other symptoms include swelling of the lymph nodes in the groin and anus area. Penile cancer is also a risk factor linked to HPV. In the early stages, individuals might notice discoloration, toughing skin texture and build up of tissue on the penis. This could be followed by painful sores and bleeding; however, in some cases there may be no symptoms until the cancer has advanced.
Fortunately, science has kept up with times. Unfortunately, insurance companies still have some catching up to do. The FDA has approved the vaccine for young women and men, primarily focusing on the pre-sexually active population. One reason for the age restriction is the belief that nearly half of sexually active people already have acquired an HPV infection; which is why some older individuals (anyone over 26) might find it more difficult to cover the $375.00 cost of the vaccine. That hasn’t seemed to stop some doctors from encouraging clients to get vaccinated; arguing it can’t hurt – and it’ s a lot cheaper than the co
Sam Knew, MSW is an educator and a local counselor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org