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A Unisex Vaccine Against Cancer

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By this time, few adults in the U.S. haven't heard of the "cervical cancer vaccine" Gardasil, which has been well-publicized and recommended for routine administration to girls and women ages 9 to 26. But how many know that Gardasil--which attacks four strains of the sexually transmitted HPV (human papillomavirus)--is not just for women? And that it guards against cancers other than cervical?

In fact, the widespread HPV affects 75 percent of U.S. adults under 50, regardless of gender. In addition to cervical cancer, Gardasil protects against anal, oral and penile cancers, as well as genital warts. Oral cancers should be of particular concern: Some researchers believe that HPV may soon cause more cases of that disease than the most commonly recognized causes, tobacco and alcohol, combined.

Yet despite the threat to both men and women, the HPV vaccine is not widely accessible to men and boys. Since it's an "equal opportunity infector," it should be equally available and affordable regardless of gender, argues Adina Nack, a respected sexual health researcher and medical sociology professor at California Lutheran University in "Why Men's Health Is a Feminist Issue," an article she's written for the Winter issue of Ms., now on newsstands.

Last October, the FDA did approve Gardasil for prevention of genital warts in boys and men, but the Centers for Disease Control voted in favor of a lesser recommendation of "permissive" use in males, which is likely to make the vaccine less affordable for men because insurance may not cover it. New evidence of the vaccine's use for anal and other cancers will be presented on February 24th at a meeting of the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Just last week, Gardasil-maker Merck released a study that found their vaccine effective in preventing anal cancers in men. As evidence like that mounts, hopefully the FDA will reevaluate its original narrow approval of "male Gardasil" for genital warts alone.

Merck would also like to market the drug to women up to age 45, as another recent study the pharmaceutical company conducted shows its effectiveness for women 24 to 45. Again, approvals from the FDA and CDC would then make it more likely to be covered by insurance, and thus more accessible for those who want to use it.

To continue marketing Gardasil primarily as a female-only, cervical cancer vaccine will unnecessarily endanger boys and men. And, the truth is, if women don't focus on men's health as well as their own, they put themselves and potentially children at risk.

So on behalf of men and women, we call on the FDA and CDC to move forward with all due speed on judging the efficacy of these drugs and appropriately recommending their usage. All of our lives are at stake.

To read Nack's full article, pick up a copy of Ms. magazine on newsstands now, or join the Ms. community