STD Awareness: Gardasil and Gendered Double Standards

male female teens largeDespite the fact that it’s been approved for males for years, Gardasil is still largely seen as a vaccine for girls, and human papillomavirus (HPV) is still thought of by many as a virus that only impacts the female population. The fact of the matter is that HPV can have serious consequence for boys and men, and Gardasil is an important tool in protecting their sexual health. Why, then, does the association between girls and Gardasil persist?


Let’s stop thinking of Gardasil as the cervical cancer vaccine. Gardasil is a cancer vaccine, period.


Before Gardasil’s introduction, the pharmaceutical company Merck launched an HPV-awareness campaign to get a buzz going for their upcoming vaccine. Their talking points could be boiled down to one simple fact: HPV causes cervical cancer. Outside of the medical field, HPV was a little-known virus, and Merck strove to connect HPV and cervical cancer in the public’s mind so that, after it hit the market, Gardasil’s value would be easily recognized.

So the origins of the association between girls and Gardasil lie in its marketing — and the fact that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) initially only approved its use in females. From its introduction in 2006 until 2009, Gardasil was only FDA-approved for use in girls and women, and its routine use in males was not recommended by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices until December 2011.

While Gardasil’s website is currently gender neutral, archives show that before FDA approval for males, it contained photos of young women and female-specific language. This initial focus on female recipients could have “feminized” Gardasil, entrenching its association with girls and women in the cultural imagination. Some scholars say that, by only recommending it for one sex, the FDA implicitly assigned liability for HPV transmission to females, and advertisers framed the woman as a disease vector in taglines targeting females, such as “spread the word, not the disease.” Although a male’s sexual history is a major predictor of a female partner’s HPV status, girls and women were assigned sole responsibility for their HPV status while boys and men were not similarly burdened. Such messages downplayed the male role in HPV transmission as well as HPV’s effect on males. Continue reading

Men’s Health Is No Joke

Father And Son In Park With FootballThe week leading up to Father’s Day is Men’s Health Week. One of the biggest issues when it comes to men’s health is that it just isn’t taken seriously. I realized this while I was spending time with some of my guy friends one day.

The group of friends I was with all work at a warehouse. They fit the stereotypical “dude” type that would rather wrap some duct tape and a few popsicle sticks around a broken finger instead of going to the doctor.


You can take control of your health at any age!


One of them was talking about a recent checkup he had. We are all in our early 20s and we’re reaching that turning point where our physical exams get a bit more … well, physical. He mentioned that he had a prostate exam and STD screening, and the rest of the guys in my group teased him about it. It was all in good fun, but a moment later it struck me that they were all making jokes about an examination that could potentially save his life.

I have overheard my female friends discuss things like seeing an ob/gyn or getting a physical exam, and while they occasionally joke about it, they do it in a very lighthearted manner that couldn’t possibly leave anyone embarrassed.

While my guy friends’ jokes themselves were not harmful, they indicated an attitude of dismissal that leaves them far less likely than women to see a doctor for preventive care and regular checkups.  Continue reading

STD MANageMENt

guys“Hey man, when was the last time you were screened?” Never have I heard those words from any of my male friends.

Unlike my female friends, who I have overheard discussing the safety and health of their sex lives, men seem to avoid conversations like that. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent studies on some of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis) show that while female rates for these STDs either remained the same or declined, men’s infection rates increased, especially with syphilis. Men made up 91 percent of all reported primary and secondary syphilis cases reported during the study.


Don’t stick your head in the sand: Get yourself tested!


Though women are at higher risk of contracting STDs due to their anatomy, their infection rates are dropping while men’s are rising. So what is causing the increase in male STD incidence, and what can we do to fix it?

One of the possible issues is that, on average, women see the doctor more often than men. Young people are notorious for not getting their annual checkups with their primary care physicians since they are usually healthy. That, combined with the lack of gender-specific male doctors, really leaves no incentive for men to go to the doctor. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Is Syphilis Making a Comeback?

men syphilisBefore antibiotics, syphilis was the most feared sexually transmitted disease (STD) out there. It was easy to get, quack cures were ineffective and often unpleasant, and it could lead to blindness, disfigurement, dementia, or even death. When we were finally able to zap infections away with drugs like penicillin, it seemed like we’d finally won the battle against this scourge. Whereas syphilis rates were highest before antibiotics became widespread in the 1940s, by 2000 we saw a low of 2.1 cases of syphilis per 100,000. At the dawn of the new millennium, many scientists thought the United States was at the dawn of the complete elimination of syphilis.


Using condoms, regular STD testing, and limiting sex partners are the best ways for sexually active people to stay healthy.


Must all good things come to an end? They shouldn’t have to, but in the case of syphilis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced that syphilis rates are rising, with incidence doubling since 2005. In the United States, there are now 5.3 cases of syphilis per 100,000 people, but that number is a bit misleading because it represents an average across the general population. When you break the population down by age, race or ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, that rate might be much higher or much lower. For example, syphilis rates are actually on the decline among women (at only 0.9 cases per 100,000), but among men it is 9.8 per 100,000. In fact, most new syphilis cases — 91.1 percent of them, to be precise — are in men, most of whom are gay or bisexual.

Syphilis is rising the most dramatically among men in their twenties, especially among men who have sex with men (MSM). While some wonder if syphilis is growing among twenty-somethings because this group didn’t live through the early era of AIDS, when HIV was seen as a death sentence and safer sex practices were more common, it might also be due to the fact that STD rates are higher among young people in general. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Gardasil and Males

menIt’s Men’s Health Month, and yesterday was the last day of Men’s Health Week, which means we’re going to look at a men’s health issue that is usually ignored: the impact of human papillomavirus (HPV) on the male population.

You’ve probably heard of HPV in discussions about cervical cancer and Pap testing. But HPV doesn’t care about gender, and is perfectly content to invade cells in anyone’s genital tract, mouth, throat, or anus. In males, HPV can cause genital warts as well as anal, oropharyngeal (mouth and throat), and penile cancers.


HPV will cause more oral cancer than cervical cancer by 2020.


The good news is that most HPV infections can be prevented by a vaccine called Gardasil, and you don’t need to be female to get it. However, few males are actually getting the HPV vaccine: In 2012, 20.8 percent of U.S. males 13 to 17 years of age had received at least one dose of the HPV vaccine, but only 6.8 percent completed the three-dose series.

Gardasil Is for Everybody: Good News from Australia

This huge disparity in promoting Gardasil to female patients rather than male patients has real-world consequences. In Australia, girls have been vaccinated with Gardasil since 2007, covered by their national health system. Four years into the program, genital wart rates fell by 93 percent in females less than 21 years of age. Even though males weren’t being routinely immunized, genital wart rates fell by 82 percent among heterosexual males in the same age group. That’s because their female partners had received the vaccine, which had the effect of protecting much of the male population. That might sound pretty nifty, but the female-only vaccination policy left out gay and bisexual males, whose genital wart rates saw no corresponding decline. Continue reading

Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does, Part 19: Prostate Exams for Cancer Screening

prostateWelcome to the latest installment of “Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does,” a series on Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona’s blog that highlights Planned Parenthood’s diverse array of services — the ones Jon Kyl never knew about.

It’s Prostate Cancer Awareness Month. This type of cancer strikes 1 out of 5 Americans with prostates. There are two common screening tests for it — and Planned Parenthood Arizona offers both of them. The first test, and the subject of this post, is the prostate exam. The second is the prostate specific antigen (PSA) test — which has both benefits and drawbacks, and which will be the subject of a future post.

Here’s the good news/bad news: Prostate cancer is the second-leading cause of men’s cancer deaths, but it also has very high survival rates when detected and treated early — a five-year survival rate of almost 100 percent.

What’s a prostate?

A normal prostate is a one-ounce, walnut-sized gland that is part of the male reproductive system. It manufactures fluid that is mixed with sperm to create semen, which is the product of ejaculation. However, the gland can often enlarge, especially later in life. Since the prostate is nestled right in there with the bladder and the urethra, when it grows in size it can block the flow of urine (it can also cause sexual problems). An enlarged prostate, also called benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), can mimic the symptoms of prostate cancer — but it’s not cancer. It may be treated surgically, however.

Am I at risk for prostate cancer?

While prostate cancer is common, there are a few factors that can increase your risk even more. These include:

  • age (two-thirds of prostate cancers occur in people 65 years of age or older)
  • genetics (a family history of prostate cancer — especially if a father or brother developed prostate cancer before the age of 65)
  • being of African-American descent (prostate cancer is more common in African Americans than in Americans of other races) Continue reading

STD Awareness: Can Oral Sex Cause Throat Cancer?

mouthLast month, actor Michael Douglas gave a frank interview in which he revealed that human papillomavirus (HPV) caused his throat cancer. And, he continued, he got the virus from performing oral sex — specifically, cunnilingus (oral contact with female genitalia). It’s unusual for celebrities to be open about their STD status — and Douglas’ spokesperson has since backpedaled on his comment — so Douglas is to be commended for bringing light to a taboo and little-understood topic. But there were a few things he got wrong, too.


No matter your gender or sexual orientation, performing unprotected oral sex can increase cancer risk.


HPV is a common virus that can be spread by most sexual activities — including vaginal, anal, and oral sex, as well as rubbing genitals together. There are many strains of HPV, which come in two main categories: low-risk HPV, which can cause genital warts; and high-risk HPV, which can cause cancers of the cervix, anus, vagina, vulva, penis, mouth, and throat. The majority of HPV-related cancers are caused by two strains of HPV: HPV-16 and HPV-18.

The good news is that there is a vaccine that can protect you from infection by HPV-16 and HPV-18. Furthermore, most people clear an HPV infection within two years. HPV-related throat cancer is rare, affecting just 2.6 out of 100,000 people.

Can oral sex really lead to throat cancer?

Unfortunately, it is absolutely true that oral sex can transmit HPV, and a chronic infection can cause cancer. Oral sex is indeed sex. It’s not “third base,” it’s not “almost sex,” it’s plain old, straight-up sex, carrying with it the potential for both pleasure and disease transmission. Unfortunately, because so many of us have a lax attitude toward it, fewer people take precautions when engaging in oral sex, and are less likely to use condoms or dental dams. Combined with low vaccination rates for HPV in the United States, the virus is even easier to acquire than it needs to be. Continue reading