A tumour from a man's neck. Photo by Bob Richmond.
It's women who get pap smears on the regular, and girls who are more likely to be up-to-date on their human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines — but a new study confirms that the virus puts men at risk, too. Men were six times more likely than women to have a high-risk type of HPV in their mouth or throat, where it can cause oropharyngeal cancer.
HPV is a sexually transmitted virus, but most of the time it doesn't cause any obvious symptoms. Our immune systems are pretty good at eventually fighting off the virus. If you're a sexually active adult, you've probably contracted at least one strain of HPV during your lifetime.
If you don't fight it off, though, the virus can cause cancer. It's best known as a cause of cervical cancer, but it's also responsible for penile, anal, vulvar, and vaginal cancers. And because the virus can live in the mouth and throat, it can also cause cancers there.
How to Protect Yourself
There's no treatment to rid yourself of the virus, and the only routine tests for it are the cervical cancer screenings that are a mainstay of gynecologist visits. A pap smear looks for abnormal cells that are starting to behave like cancer cells; an HPV test, done instead or in addition, checks for the presence of the virus itself.
So the best way to protect yourself from the virus — no matter your gender — is twofold. You can limit its spread with barrier methods like condoms or dental dams; and if you're in the right age range to get an HPV vaccine, you should get one. The vaccine only protects against a few of the highest risk types of HPV (nine of them, in the case of the newest version of Gardasil) and people who had been vaccinated were less likely to be infected with those types.
The National HPV Vaccination Program is provided free in schools for males and females aged 12-13. Incidence of the HPV virus in Australia has been dramatically lowered through the immunisation program. More information is available at the Department of Health's website.