Why the HPV vaccine is important for MSM
Reviewed by our clinical team
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a really common virus that can spread from one person to another during sex. There are lots of different strains of HPV and most go completely unnoticed or cause minor skin issues such as verrucas, whilst others can cause genital warts. Some so-called "high risk" strains can lead to cell changes that can cause cancer.
To combat the spread of high-risk HPV, the NHS introduced a vaccine for teenage girls in 2008. Since then, the vaccination programme has been extended to include teenage boys, as well as men who have sex with men (MSM).
If you’re a man who has sex with men and you’re aged 45 or under, it’s worth visiting a sexual health or HIV clinic to ask about getting the HPV vaccine for free on the NHS. Read on to find out why.
What is the definition of “men who have sex with men”?
In a medical situation, MSM are not just gay men, but any men who have sex with other men. Trans men and trans women aren’t classed as MSM, but they’re often considered in a similar risk category because of their medical needs and lifestyle.
MSM is a group considered high risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), largely because of the risks associated with anal sex. The lining of the anus is more delicate and easily damaged than the lining of the vagina, which means there’s a higher chance of infection during penetrative anal sex.
What are the benefits of the HPV vaccine for MSM?
The HPV vaccine offers protection against the strains of HPV that are most likely to cause medical complications. For men who have sex with men and trans women, getting the HPV vaccine is a good way to stay protected against:
- Anal cancer
- Cancer of the penis
- Cancers of the mouth and throat
- Genital warts
Trans men will be protected from cancer of the cervix, vagina and vulva, as well as the (relevant) conditions listed above.
Who is eligible for a free HPV vaccine?
Men who have sex with men can get the HPV vaccine free if they’re aged 45 or under. Trans women and trans men are also eligible if their risk is considered similar.
A free vaccine is also offered to girls and boys at the age of 12 or 13 in school. Additionally, it’s free to people under the age of 25 who missed out on the vaccine in school. Find out more about who's eligible for a free HPV vaccine.
What if I’m too old to get the free HPV vaccine?
If you’re over the age of 45 but you’d still like to get the HPV vaccine, you can have it done privately.
Online Doctor offers the HPV vaccine to adults over 18. Once you’ve ordered your vaccine online and been approved by one of our in-house doctors, you can visit your nearest LloydsPharmacy store to receive your injections.
How else can I protect myself from HPV?
HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact, which means it’s not always easy to avoid – even if you use condoms.
However, in general, it helps to do the following when you’re having sex with a new or casual partner, or anyone whose STI status isn’t clear:
- Use condoms for penetrative sex
- Use dental dams or condoms for oral sex
- Avoid sharing sex toys
In addition, trans men (and cis women) should attend their scheduled cervical screenings to check for the presence of high-risk HPV or any abnormal cell changes that might lead to cervical cancer.
Unfortunately, there’s no HPV test or screening available for cis men or trans women. What you can do is make sure that you’re keeping an eye out for any new symptoms. Cancers that affect men are described in detail here: Male cancers associated with HPV.
What should I do if I get genital warts?
Genital warts can be caused by HPV and while they’re not life-threatening, they can be unpleasant. They appear as fleshy growths on or around the penis, anus and genitals. They can be hard or soft, but normally they’re painless – although they can sometime itch or bleed if they are very large.
If you notice these kinds of growths, it’s a good idea to go to a sexual health or GUM clinic, or get help from Online Doctor. Although warts tend to recur over time, symptoms can be treated in the short term using topical treatments, freezing or surgery.