HPV vaccine can positively impact gay men’s health

Shauna Bowers

Credit: Fairsociety.ie The HPV vaccine is not just something for young women.

Lorcan walked into the Gay Men’s Health Services (GMHS) on Baggot Street in Dublin back in September for his regular STI check. As he entered, he saw a poster on a wall. It was regarding the HPV vaccine for men who have sex with men. He remembered back in March or April of that year, a nurse came into the GMHS waiting room, encouraging them all to avail of the vaccine which was just recently made available free of charge.

He then made an inquiry about availing of the vaccine. His nurse Paul discussed the vaccine in detail with him, gave him some informational leaflets and explained the need to commit to the six months. He received his first dose of the vaccine in September and is looking forward to getting the second dose on the 22nd of November.

In the past, HPV was primarily promoted for girls with many female adolescents getting the vaccine while in school. However, since January last year the HSE has been offering the HPV vaccine for free to men who have sex with men (MSM) and are under the age of 26. A group of DCU students are pushing for the awareness of this availability in a campaign called MGH.

What is HPV?

HPV stands for human papillomavirus, and is often referred to as the ‘common cold’ of STDs. It’s a viral infection that can be spread from one person to another person through anal, vaginal, or oral sex, or through other close skin-to-skin touching during sexual activity.

If you are sexually active you can get HPV, and nearly all sexually active people get infected with HPV at some point in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While it doesn’t always develop into something malign, sometimes it can develop into cancer. The LGBT community have a higher chances of engaging with the factors linked to cancers and one of the biggest of those factors is HPV, according to cancer.org.

The presence of anal HPV is much higher in men who have sex with men, according to a journal article from the US National Library of Medicine. Infection with HPV increases gay and bisexual men’s chances of contracting oral, genital and anal cancer.

It is because of this that MGH have started this social media campaign to increase awareness around the HPV vaccine for the LGBT community. They want to start an informed discussion around the topic of HPV and eventually, they hope to increase the uptake of the HPV vaccine in men who have sex with men.

They are also in talks with ‘Pantibar’ currently to try and organise an event for their campaign.

Herd Immunity

Straight men avail of the vaccine through an idea called herd immunity. According to research from Australia, the number of straight men contracting HPV has fallen drastically since they began vaccinating young women. Their engagement in sexual activities with these women allows them to receive the protective benefits of the vaccine.

This, however, is not the case for gay and bisexual men as they do not engage in sexual activities with the women who were vaccinated.

“It is important that MSM have access to the HPV vaccine because they do not benefit from the herd immunity conferred through vaccinating adolescent girls,” Dr Fiona Lyons, the HSE’s clinical lead for sexual health said when the vaccine was made available to men who have sex with men.

The MGH campaign are not afraid that the negative coverage of side effects of the HPV vaccine will get in the way of their mission. “If people are afraid of the consequences then that is their choice. But they need to have all the information, from all sides of the campaign so that they can make an informed choice,” said Niel Glas, member of the MGH campaign team.

“ I don’t think young people recognise the effects and risks of not getting the vaccine.”

Another important objective of the campaign is that in women, you can screen for cervical cancer but you cannot screen for oral cancer. Therefore, prevention is the way forward with both the HPV vaccine and the use of condoms during sexual engagement.

DCU LGBTA supports this campaign

“DCU LGBTA are ecstatic to see campaigns raise awareness on the importance of HPV vaccines for MSM… It is essential to provide MSM (and all individuals) the most comprehensive sexual health care plan possible, of which is only achieved through educating individuals on all aspects of sexual health.

“Of course, this is not to deny the reality that HPV can be contracted by anyone, of any gender. However, with keen focus on HPV Vaccines for women at second level education, it is necessary to also account for MSM. It is wonderful to see this addressed in the MGH campaign,” Dean O’Reilly, chairperson of DCU LGBTA, said.

Lorcan started this campaign because he really wanted to shed some light on the effects that HPV can have on men who have sex with men. He is encouraging everybody who is eligible, to appeal of this vaccine. He said: “To the people who are on the fence, you need to seek the facts. You can find information on men2men, the MGH social media pages and GMHS are very helpful. You need to what’s right for you, but you need to be sure that you’re informed.”

Shauna Bowers