Should the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine Gardasil be recommended for routine use in boys aged 11-12 years, as it is now for girls? Or should the vaccine’s use in boys remain an option but not a routine recommendation? Alternatively, should it be routinely recommended for males who have sex with other males, a group that is at increased risk for anal infection and cancer due to HPV?
Policy decisions regarding vaccine use are often complex and nuanced, even for vaccines that aren’t already as controversial as Gardasil. The issue of vaccinating males is causing headaches for the panel tasked with making the decision, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Of the two HPV vaccines on the U.S. market, only Gardasil is licensed for use in males. It contains four strains of HPV, two (16 and 18) that are associated with cervical and other types of anogenital and oral cancers, and two (6 and 11) that are associated with genital warts. In December 2010, the Food and Drug Administration added the indication of prevention of anal cancer due to HPV vaccine strains in both males and females.
In 2009, ACIP said that Gardasil could be given to males aged 9 through 26 years, but didn’t make a routine recommendation. Some are now in favor of doing so, arguing that the vaccine protects males against both genital warts and anal cancer, it reduces HPV transmission to females by preventing infection in their male sex partners, and it’s simply more equitable and convenient for physicians to offer the vaccine to both male and female patients.
The main argument against the move is the vaccine’s cost, approximately $360 for the full three-dose series. A CDC-commissioned cost-effectiveness analysis posed a conundrum: Use of Gardasil in males is more cost-effective the less it is used in females, and vice versa. At current female coverage levels – just 27% for all three doses among 13- to 17-year-olds in 2009 ¬ use of the vaccine in males makes the cost-effectiveness cut-off in some models, depending on assumptions. But of course, public health officials are hoping that coverage among females will increase.
Restricting Gardasil’s use to males who have sex with males would dramatically increase the vaccine’s cost-effectiveness, as anal cancer in that group is actually more common than is cervical cancer among all women. While the vaccine’s use could certainly be promoted among older male teens and young adults who are already “out,” screening for sexual orientation among 11- to 12-year-old boys is unlikely to be a viable option.
A vote on this is likely to come later this year, but it won’t be an easy one, ACIP working group chair Dr. Janet A. Englund told me at the panel’s meeting last week in Atlanta. “The concern about cost and cost-effectiveness is a very important consideration for the committee.”
-Miriam E. Tucker (@MiriamETucker on Twitter)