DAVID GREENE, HOST:
HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that can cause certain cancers. And for the past decade, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended that teenage girls be vaccinated against HPV. But it has only been telling boys to get that vaccine for the past few years, which means Jake Harper, a 29-year-old reporter for Side Effects Public Media, never got the shots. And now he's worried.
JAKE HARPER, BYLINE: TV is making me anxious about sex, more anxious than usual.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I was infected with HPV. Maybe my parents didn't know how widespread HPV is.
HARPER: That's an ad from the pharmaceutical giant Merck, which makes Gardasil, an HPV vaccine. And I'm seeing these ads all the time.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Maybe they didn't know I would end up with cancer because of HPV.
HARPER: I found out about HPV when a college girlfriend got vaccinated. Back then, the CDC only recommended the vaccine for females. It seemed strange to me then because in theory, I could still spread HPV. But with my partner vaccinated, I let it go. I didn't know HPV could cause health problems for men. But it can, mainly in the back of the mouth and throat, the area called the oropharynx.
ERICH STURGIS: There are now more or oropharynx cancers in men in the United States each year than there are cervical cancers in women.
HARPER: Erich Sturgis is a researcher at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He says the number of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers is up. And there's no way to catch it early.
STURGIS: Most people show up with oropharynx cancer because it has spread to a lymph node in the neck. Typically it's a man. While he's shaving, he notices a lump in his neck. That means that it's already a cancer that has spread.
HARPER: HPV also puts men at risk for penile and other cancers. They're rare but still terrifying. So I've been wondering, is it too late for me to be vaccinated? It turns out it's complicated. The younger you are, the better you respond to the vaccine. That's part of the reason the CDC only recommends it for males through age 21 - or up to 26 for some high-risk men. But researchers tell me the vaccine could still help someone who's older if they haven't already been exposed. That's complicated too, says Greg Zimet at the Center for HPV Research in Indianapolis.
GREG ZIMET: There's a very good likelihood that someone who's having sex is going to be infected. I think the figures are typically about 80 percent.
HARPER: Eighty percent of sexually active people will be exposed at some point. But most infections go away on their own. And there are many kinds of HPV.
ZMIET: There's several dozen types of HPV that infect the genital region.
HARPER: Only some of those cause problems like cancer and genital warts, which is another thing I'd rather not get. And Gardasil protects against nine of the most problematic HPV types. So let's say, you know, hypothetically, you're kind of shy and haven't had that many partners.
JOHN SCHILLER: The chances that you've been exposed to all nine types are actually vanishingly small.
HARPER: That's John Schiller with the National Cancer Institute. He says the vaccine might not be a bad idea because it could still protect against the types I haven't been exposed to.
SCHILLER: You're past the age of where your health insurance is going to pay for it. It's just whether you want to use it on this or you want to use it going out to dinner for a few times. It's a personal decision.
HARPER: So I got the vaccine. It costs $130. And I still have to get another shot. But for me, it was worth the tradeoff. For NPR News, I'm Jake Harper.
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GREENE: The two stories you just heard came to us as part of a partnership with NPR local member stations and Kaiser Health News.
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