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Why Are So Few Boys Getting the HPV Vaccine?

Young boy
Young boy Photo: Unspecified/Corbis

Did you know that boys are supposed to get the HPV vaccine? A lot of people do not know that, and according to the CDC’s most recent data, boys are not getting the vaccine at the same rates as girls.

The vaccine — known by its brand name Gardasil — guards against HPV, the most common sexually transmitted virus in the U.S. More than half the sexually active men and women become infected with HPV at some point in their lives, putting them at risk for HPV-caused cancers, including cervical cancer in girls. Since its release in 2006, the vaccine has proven effective, lowering rates of HPV infections in girls by 64 percent. It’s unequivocally a good thing. So why aren’t boys getting it?

The vaccine is actually a series of doses. Kids get the first dose at 11 or 12, with two follow-ups over the next few months. In 2015, the CDC reported that 60 percent of girls got the first dose, while only 39.7 percent of boys did. For comparison’s sake, there are two other unrelated vaccines that kids are supposed to get at the same doctor’s visit, and the CDC found that 79.3 percent and 89.6 percent of boys got those. As for the full series of shots: Less than 13 percent of boys get that.

A study released last year suggested that doctors might not be fully comfortable speaking with patients and their parents about sex. Because it is recommended so early, the HPV vaccine has been the cause of anxiety for some parents who fear that inoculation might somehow promote promiscuity, though that fear has been proven unfounded. But none of the previous studies explain why there is a further, massive discrepancy in vaccination rates between girls and boys, though some evidence suggests that parents are simply not informed as to the benefits of the vaccine for boys.

But doctors should prioritize keeping parents informed. In an ideal world, they would make it clear that yes, they are vaccinating an 11- or 12-year-old against a sexually transmitted disease, but they’re also protecting that child from potentially fatal cancers. True, cancer from HPV is much less common in boys, but the vaccine still offers a measure of protection — plus, by ultimately preventing men from passing on HPV, vaccinating boys protects women as well.