According to the study, released this week in Pediatrics, rates of HPV infection (for the four strains covered by the vaccine) have dropped 64 percent in girls aged 14 to 19 years since the vaccine was introduced, and rates have fallen 34 percent for women aged 20 to 24. HPV rates went from 11.5 percent to 4.3 percent for teens and from 18.5 percent to 12.1 percent for young women. Data on boys and young men are not yet available.
“This is an incredibly important public health improvement,” said oncologist Debra Patt, MD, of Austin, and a member of Texas Medical Association’s (TMA’s) Council on Science and Public Health. “We know that by reducing HPV infection rates, the vaccination will effectively prevent cancer from developing.”
HPV causes several types of cancer that affect men and women, including cervical, penile, and oropharyngeal (cancers of the head and neck such as throat and mouth). An HPV-related cancer is diagnosed every 20 minutes, affecting 27,000 Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“HPV is a substantial risk factor for many of the cancers we’re seeing,” said Dr. Patt, also a consultant to TMA’s Committee on Cancer. “And we usually don’t diagnose them until they are in the advanced stages and more difficult to treat, making prevention even more important.”
During National Cancer Prevention Month in February, Texas physicians want to ensure people include an HPV vaccination as part of their cancer prevention arsenal, as the new study reaffirms.
The HPV vaccination is recommended for preteen boys and girls, aged 11 and 12 years, but can be given as early as age 9.
The sooner the better, doctors say. Dr. Patt says the vaccine provides the most benefit in children younger than 14 years of age, and the new study bears that out. “Getting the vaccination before being exposed to the HPV virus is key.”
Nonetheless, HPV vaccination also is recommended for older teens and young adults who didn’t get it when they were younger, or who didn’t complete the three-shot series. Males can get the vaccine through 21 years of age and up to age 26 if they are at high risk. Females can get vaccinated through age 26.
HPV is the most common infection in the nation spread through intimate skin-to-skin or sexual contact. Almost all (80 percent) of sexually active people will have the virus sometime in their lives. Most HPV infections will go away, but some won’t. These are the ones that cause genital warts and cancer years or decades later.
“Knowing which teens will suffer long-term effects from HPV is unpredictable when they’re young and able to benefit most from vaccination,” said Dr. Patt. “So having everyone get vaccinated to prevent the HPV infection is the best way to avoid the cancer.”
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV, the most common cancer caused by the virus. HPV also causes more than 90 percent of anal cancers and nearly three-quarters of vaginal and back-of-the-throat cancers, according to CDC. Dr. Patt says doctors are seeing an increase in head and neck cancers.
The HPV vaccine requires three shots over a six-month period. HPV vaccines have been available since 2006, but a new version, the HPV9 vaccine, provides even more protection because it covers nine strains of the virus that cause the most cancers. People should choose among these vaccine options with their physician.
Paying for the vaccine shouldn’t be a barrier. Most insurance companies, the Texas Vaccines for Children Program, and the Adult Safety Net program pay for HPV vaccine. The Texas Department of State Health Services created the Adult Safety Net to make vaccinations available to uninsured adults.
“People suffer, and some die from the cancers caused by HPV,” said Dr. Patt. “To know many of my patients could have prevented their cancer with a few shots compels me to continue to spread this message. I want to give parents an opportunity to help their children avoid cancer with preventive vaccination.”
TMA has published an infographic and fact sheet about the importance of HPV vaccination, both in English and Spanish.