Cancers related to HPV, or human papilloma virus, are on the rise in the United States with about 32,000 new cases diagnosed in 2017. Closer to home, we’re seeing more cancers related to HPV in our clinic here in Madison, WI, particularly cancers of the head, neck and throat. These cancers are affecting a younger population aged 25-50.
The virus that causes at least 6 cancers is so prevalent the Center for Disease Control estimates 1 in 4 men and women in the US are currently infected with it. HPV is transmitted by intimate skin to skin contact and, in most cases, goes away on its own with infected cells returning to normal before causing health problems. But in some cases, the body does not clear the infection and eventually cancer of the mouth, throat, cervix and others can occur. We know that HPV causes cancer, but there’s a lot we do not know, and so research continues. Complicating the issue is this: only one of these cancers is routinely screened for, cervical cancer in women.
There’s a solution to this problem. It begins with a remarkably effective vaccine that actually blocks the virus and prevents cancer. "This vaccine is the best way to protect our youth from developing cancers caused by HPV infection," says CDC Director Robert Redfield.
We know the vaccine exists, it has for years. Though proven safe we have failed to protect our population. The CDC said that last year nearly 66 percent of adolescents aged 13-17 received the first dose in the vaccine series, and nearly 49 percent of adolescents received all the recommended doses to complete the series. We’re falling dramatically short of Wisconsin’s goal to vaccinate 80% of all boys and girls by the age of 13 with just 35-37% of all kids vaccinated. That’s not enough to protect the next generation from the 6 types of cancer we know are HPV-related.
Here’s how we prevent 6 cancers-
- Vaccinate everyone by the age of 13. In fact, evidence now shows there is some benefit to vaccinating adults (link to https://www.medpagetoday.com/obgyn/cervicalcancer/75551 ) until age 45.
- Pediatricians strongly recommend the vaccine for children, and parents need to opt in to prevent cancer.
- Our public healthcare policies should step up outreach like the innovative project on the UW campus encouraging students getting their flu shot to immunize against HPV and prevent cancer.
- Develop a system to screen for HPV-related cancers. Currently the best screening for oral cancer comes from your dentist. Ask for a screening every year. But there are other cancers related to HPV infection and we need to screen for them as well.
On a personal level, take control of your health.
- Know the benefits of using condoms correctly and consistently.
- Reduce the number of sexual partners, it lowers risk of infection.
- Understand the role oral sex plays in the spread of HPV.
- And as with all cancer prevention, taking good care of your personal health can make a difference.