This September marked an important breakthrough in sexual health: an FDA panel recommended Gardasil, the HPV vaccine, for males ages nine through 26. Last semester, I wrote multiple columns about the fact that although men and women have equal chances of getting genital warts — a symptom of HPV — they don’t have equal access to testing or vaccinations. Accurate tests and vaccinations are available for women but not widely available for men. Being the equality advocate that I am, when I learned that the vaccines would now be recommended for both sexes, I started to do an Irish dance — yes, like the ones in the River Dance commercials that air at 5 a.m. — but halted mid-step.

It’s not my intent to do an about-face on this issue, but now that the vaccine is almost here I am totally conflicted. On one hand, men should take their sexual health more seriously because of how life-threatening health outcomes can affect them and, for heterosexuals, their female partners. The introduction of this vaccine gives men an incentive to invest in their sexual health. But there are drawbacks when considering the decision making of Merck, the makers of Gardasil, and the circumstances surrounding how money has been spent to advocate for the vaccine. So, allow me to interrupt the non-stop vaccine related content dedicated to the swine flu to tackle the business of Gardasil.

My beef with Gardasil is really a beef with the unethical practices of Merck, the pharmaceutical giant that currently has a monopoly over the HPV vaccine in the U.S. A report published in an Aug. 27 edition of Business Week reminded us of Merck’s decision in 2006 and 2007 to lobby lawmakers to make the vaccine mandatory in some states. To boot, the article notes that we still aren’t in the know about long-term effects of Gardasil.

Other ethical questions arise when we consider how health care providers have been influenced by Merck’s monetary muscle. A report in an Aug. 19 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that Merck doled out grants to professional medical organizations, which ostensibly promoted medical professionals to advocate for Gardasil. This report also noted that Merck’s strategy put an increasing focus on all women and not populations that were most at risk to contract HPV.

Perhaps most intriguing is the need for critical questions that evaluate vaccination against preventative testing — something that men still lack in the case of HPV. This was best captured by Dr. Diane Harper, director of the Gynecologic Cancer Prevention Research Group at Dartmouth, who was featured in a Los Angeles Times report that ran last year on Aug. 11. “If we vaccinate every single 12-year-old, it should reduce by half the number of cervical cancers in the next 35 years… (but) with Pap screening, we’ve reduced it by nearly 75 percent,” she said. Knowing that, this is my formal plea to Merck to invest in HPV testing for men if they haven’t already started to do so.

But to Merck’s credit, Gardasil can’t be all bad if it is one formality away from being widely available for men. A CNN report that ran on Sep. 9 noted that clinical trials revealed a 90 percent reduction in the infection of genital warts and cancerous lesions. Further, in an interview with Medical Director of UHS, Robert Ernst, he confirmed, “The vaccine in men would help to prevent the spread of HPV to susceptible women, and therefore indirectly help to reduce the likelihood of cervical cancer in women.” He also noted that Gardasil would vaccinate against penile cancers and gay men will have an opportunity to prevent strands of HPV that could possibly cause anal cancers.

Gardasil for women at UHS costs $173 per shot when you include the health care provider’s fee. Side effects from the vaccine include pain where you get the shot and a low-grade fever.

Beyond these facts are also key advantages. First, it’s important to note that the college setting makes it easy to get vaccinations. It’s accessible to go to UHS because it’s on campus and it’s relatively simple to book an appointment. In the real world, you may have to travel miles away from your residence and cram three appointments in between your nine-to-five work schedule. Second, for both men and women, getting the vaccine can be a gateway to checking up on other aspects of your sexual health and asking your provider sexual health questions. Lastly, perhaps most obvious, it will be really hard for you to contract genital warts — an infection that condoms won’t protect you from but the vaccine will. Not getting warts isn’t just good for your health but also your genital self-esteem. I can see the Merck commercials now: “With penis size anxiety and maintaining an erection, you’ll have one less thing to worry about: warts!”

Rose Afriyie can be reached at sariyie@umich.edu.

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