A committee that advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is set to decide today whether to recommend routinely vaccinating boys and young men against sexually transmitted forms of human papillomavirus, the cause of most cervical and anal cancers as well as most mouth and throat cancers.
A "yes" vote would send the issue on to the CDC director and secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for final approval.
The CDC already recommends routinely immunizing girls with a three-dose vaccine beginning at age 11 or 12, before they become sexually active, although they can be vaccinated as young as age 9. The agency issued a so-called permissive recommendation giving males from ages 9 through 26 the option of receiving the vaccine.
As it takes up the issue of vaccinating boys during today's meeting in Atlanta, the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization is also expected to determine the age at which routine vaccinations should begin. Because cost-effectiveness drops with age, the panel must decide whether to close the window of opportunity for catch-up vaccines at either age 21 or age 26.
The prospect of requiring that preteen boys and girls get vaccinated against a sexually transmitted infection has drawn the sharpest outcry from some parents, who fear that vaccinating preteens might encourage promiscuous behavior. Vaccination policies also have become an issue in the 2012 presidential campaign, with several GOP candidates objecting to mandates for HPV vaccination.
Many infectious disease specialists welcome universal vaccination as a key tool in reducing the toll of preventable diseases.
"Vaccination is perhaps the greatest invention of medicine," said Dr. John Sinnott, director of the Division of Infectious Disease at the University of South Florida. "It is a tragedy that this vaccine has become politicized."
But Dr. Lawrence Stanberry, chief pediatrician at New York Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital, said parents support universal recommendations more recommendations targeting groups at higher risk.
"Recommending universal immunization for girls and making the recommendation for boys permissive sends parents mixed messages," Stanberry said. He offered a fairness argument for recommending vaccinations for both sexes. "Girls acquire the infection from boys and it seems appropriate, even fair, for boys to share responsibility for maximizing community [herd] immunity," he said.
Nearly a dozen experts contacted by ABC News cited "herd protection" from HPV-associated diseases in both women and men as a main reason they supported universal immunization.
William Muraskin, an urban studies professor at Queens College in New York, said it's hard to determine which men and women will benefit directly from vaccination. "The HPV vaccine if given before males become sexually active will also protect those who will become homosexual or bisexual," Muraskin said. Routine vaccination of all young men protects "an important subgroup that otherwise will be at significant risk but cannot be identified until it is too late."
The panel is expected to issue a policy statement on the importance of vaccinating men who have sex with men, because of the risk they could develop anal cancer from HPV.