If people knew they could protect themselves or their children from cancer, would they take action?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical cancer; many people know that. But here’s a surprise: HPV also causes other increasingly common cancers. The good news is there’s a powerful tool that prevents the virus’ spread and the cancers it causes: The HPV vaccine. It prevents oropharyngeal cancer (a head-neck cancer affecting the throat and tonsils), which is fast becoming the most common cancer caused by HPV, striking more men than women. The vaccine also prevents cervical cancer, which affects only women.
“We know that almost 100 percent of cervix cancers are caused by HPV, 90 percent of anal cancers are caused by HPV, and about 70 to 80 percent of oropharyngeal cancers — which mostly occur in men — are related to HPV,” said Lois M. Ramondetta, MD, a member of Texas Medical Association’s (TMA’s) Committee on Cancer. “If more people received the HPV vaccine, we could prevent these cancers by stopping this infection.”
The most harmful strains of HPV cause vaginal, vulvar, and penile cancers, in addition to the other cancers mentioned. In 2014, physicians diagnosed an estimated 12,360 new cases of cervical cancer, and 14,410 new cases of oropharyngeal cancer in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. HPV causes at least 250,000 cases of genital warts annually in males in addition to 7,500 cancer cases per year.
These cancers can kill: More than 9,600 people in the United States died of HPV-related cancers in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They often cause significant life-altering discomfort and require extensive medical treatment. And women can lose their ability to have children.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the nation. More than half of sexually active people will have the virus sometime in their lives. “At some point in your life, you will be exposed to HPV,” said Dr. Ramondetta, a gynecological oncologist with The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, who treats patients at Harris Health System’s Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital. “Fortunately, only an unlucky relatively few will have that virus stick around [and potentially cause cancer].”
That is why doctors say it’s important for young people to get the HPV vaccination before they are exposed to the HPV virus. The HPV vaccination is primarily recommended for 11- and 12-year-old girls, though the vaccine is recommended for girls as young as 9 years old and for any female up through age 26. Boys should get the shots too: Doctors recommend 11- and 12-year-old boys get the vaccine, though males 9 through 21 years of age, even as old as age 26, might benefit.
“The timing is important because the HPV vaccine is just like the flu vaccine, you need to get the HPV vaccine before you get exposed to the virus,” Dr. Ramondetta said. Young girls and boys under age 14 gain most from the shots because their bodies can benefit most from vaccines, as their immune systems are most receptive to the protection at that age.
The United States lags far behind other countries in vaccinating against HPV. Only 32 percent of Americans have received the HPV vaccine, a rate far below that of the United Kingdom, which has more than 84 percent; Belgium, 82 percent; Portugal, 81 percent; Denmark, 79 percent; and Australia, 75 percent.
“I urge parents to talk with their doctor, get their children vaccinated against HPV. Why take the chance? A simple vaccine can prevent them from getting a cancer,” said Dr. Ramondetta.
The vaccines are safe and effective, she added. The shots can protect against two types of HPV that commonly cause 70 percent of cervical cancers, other genital and anal cancers, and genital warts. And health officials are working on a new and improved HPV vaccine that will provide even greater protection.
“Each time I see another patient who has an HPV-related cancer, I think, ‘This is ridiculous, it’s a shame, because this could be prevented,’ ” said Dr. Ramondetta, an advocate for TMA’s Be Wise—ImmunizeSM vaccination initiative advisory panel. “This vaccine is really the most amazing thing that has happened in cancer prevention in a long time. We know what causes HPV and how to prevent it, yet we’re not taking full advantage.”
TMA published a fact sheet about the importance of HPV vaccination, in English and Spanish.