MEN'S HEALTH ∙ 2 minutes read

HPV: ‘I had no idea the effect it has on men who have sex with men’

By Kirsty Mason | Medically reviewed by Prof. Sam Shah

After hearing through a friend that he could get the HPV vaccine, Ben Hubbard, 25, was shocked to find out why. We asked him what he now knows about HPV and what he’d like other men who have sex with men to know too.

Nearly everyone will get HPV at some point in their life. With over 100 strains of the virus, catching HPV is usually nothing to worry about and the infection is often symptomless. 

“I didn’t think it affected men. I thought it was entirely a female thing.”

However, some strains will predispose an individual to certain cancers, or genital warts. Cervical cancer is often raised as the primary concern. This is something Ben was aware of before getting the vaccine: “I remember in school when the girls got the HPV vaccine. Honestly, I didn’t know that much about it. I knew that it caused some sort of genital cancer for women but I didn’t think it affected men. I thought it was entirely a female thing.”

HPV is a sexually transmitted infection, and can even be spread through touching alone. Since 2008, girls have been offered a vaccine that protects them from certain dangerous strains of HPV. This has led to a level of indirect protection for men who only have sex with women.

“As a gay man, you hear a lot about HIV and chlamydia and all that, but HPV is never talked about.”

“As a gay man, you hear a lot about HIV and chlamydia and all that, but HPV is never talked about as a virus you can catch. I think it should definitely be promoted more,” says Ben.

Although uncommon, certain strains of HPV can cause penile, anal or oral cancer. Some strains can also cause genital warts. Men are particularly at risk of developing HPV-related cancers if they have weak immune systems (including HIV) or receive anal sex, putting them at greater risk of developing anal cancer.

The risk associated with HIV and HPV appears to work both ways. If you have HIV, you’re at greater risk of developing HPV-related cancer. On the other hand, having HPV is also thought to put you at risk of developing HIV. HPV types 16 and 18 (which can be prevented by the HPV vaccine) puts you at the highest risk of contracting HIV.

“It could make the whole HIV message ineffective.”

Ben feels the message to eradicate HIV has been compromised: “In my generation, there’s always been such a drive to eradicate HIV and to be safe and protected. When HPV can put you at a higher risk of contracting HIV, it seems like they’re missing a key element that they should be targeting to combat HIV. It could make the whole HIV message ineffective.”

There’s been a high uptake in men who have sex with men who are offered the vaccine. Yet Ben notes the system is flawed: “I wouldn’t have known about it if my friend hadn’t gone for a general sexual health check. I know that everyone should get a sexual health check regularly, but the reality is that we don’t. So many men who have sex with men are often unaware that they’re at risk of something that’s preventable. In most areas, it’s free on the NHS. Yet nobody seems to know.”

“The work they’ve done to eradicate HIV is incredible. Let’s not allow HPV to stand in the way.”

“If you’re a man who’s under 45 years old who has sex with a man, please check it out, because you can probably get it for free. The work they’ve done to eradicate HIV is incredible. Let’s not allow HPV to stand in the way.”