Four percent of U.S. adults aged 18 to 69 have a type of HPV that puts them at high risk for throat, or oropharyngeal, cancers, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 16,000 oropharyngeal cancers are diagnosed in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC.
The cancer’s prevalence has pushed it into the spotlight this month, which has been designated Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month. During April, Texas physicians urge parents to vaccinate their children against HPV to prevent cancer later in life.
“The vaccine is nearly 100 percent effective if it’s given before someone is exposed to HPV,” said Texas Medical Association member Erich Sturgis, MD, a head and neck surgeon at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “Taking this preventive action during adolescence can mean better health down the road.”
Physicians and other health experts recommend the HPV vaccination for preteen boys and girls, aged 11 and 12 years, but youths can receive it as early as age 9. A second dose of HPV vaccine should be given six to 12 months after the first dose.
HPV is the most common infection in the nation spread through intimate skin-to-skin or sexual contact. Almost all — eight in 10 — sexually active people will have the virus sometime in their lives.
HPV infections can cause healthy cells to become abnormal. Typically, the body can clear the infection. But when it can’t, the infection can cause cells to become cancerous years later.
Dr. Sturgis says the HPV vaccination is important for both boys and girls, but stresses its importance for boys. Doctors can diagnose cervical cancer early through screening (the Pap test), he said, but currently no screening is available for throat cancers, so they usually are advanced when diagnosed. And while HPV-related throat cancers are expected to surpass cervical cancer by 2020, Dr. Sturgis said experts say that may occur sooner.
Men are three to five times as likely to get throat cancer as women, with most cases occurring in white, middle-aged males. Smoking and alcohol use previously caused most oropharyngeal cancers, but HPV now accounts for at least 70 percent of these cancers.
“Unfortunately, the generation of people getting HPV-related throat cancers didn’t have the benefit of vaccination,” said Dr. Sturgis. “Now we have the opportunity to protect the next generation from a very devastating disease.”
Older teens and young adults who weren’t vaccinated in adolescence also can benefit from HPV vaccination. Both males and females can get the shots until age 26. For those over age 15, however, the CDC recommends three shots for full protection. People should ask their physician about how many doses are needed and when.
TMA has published an infographic and fact sheet about the importance of HPV vaccination, both in English and Spanish.