August is HPV Awareness Month

by Jane Ashley

Did you know that some types of cancer can be prevented with a vaccination?

Hpv Awareness Month

Yes, it’s true — but not everyone realizes that most cancers caused by HPV (Human papillomavirus) can be prevented by vaccination. August is HPV Awareness Month, and this month is the perfect time to learn more about HPV-caused cancers, and why it’s so important for our children and grandchildren to be vaccinated.

What is HPV?

HPV is the human papillomavirus — this virus is the most widespread sexually-transmitted infection in the world. There are more than 150 varieties of HPV, with most of them not creating symptoms or serious health problems. In other words, HPV is mostly a silent infection.
The “common” wart is caused by HPV. Most types of HPV cause warts. However, about 40 types of HPV cause genital warts. These types of HPV infections are spread through sexual contact, both genital and oral.

HPV is so widespread that almost every person who has ever been sexually active will have been exposed to HPV. So that’s virtually all of us. Studies show that by 2010, only 5% of women were virgins when they got married. An NBC study revealed that boys lose their virginity at an average age of 16.9 years, while girls lose their virginity at an average age of 17.4 years.

For our society to make progress in preventing HPV-caused cancers, we have to be realistic and face the fact that most humans are sexually active. We, as a species, are driven to procreate; sex is a biological drive.

What are the HPV-caused cancers?

HPV viruses are considered either low-risk or high-risk. The high-risk ones are those that cause cancer — one of the disturbing facts about HPV-caused cancer is that these cancers occur years or even decades after a person’s first exposure to the HPV virus.

Hpv Infographic

According to the CDC, about 44,000 cancers annually are caused by the HPV virus. About 25,000 HPV cancers occur in women (cervical being the most common), and about 19,000 occur in men, with oropharyngeal cancers (cancers in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and the tonsils) being the frequent HPV-caused cancer in men.

Cervical cancer. Almost all (about 90%) of cervical cancer is caused by HPV. About 70% of cervical cancer is caused by two types of HPV — HPV-16 or HPV-18. Almost 14,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer annually in the U.S.
Oral cancer. HPV infections can cause cancer in the mouth, the tongue, and the middle part of the throat (from the tonsils to the tip of the voice box). About 53,260 adults (38,330 men and 14,880 women) will be diagnosed with oral and oropharyngeal cancers this year. About 70% of these cancers are believed to be HPV-caused.
Anal cancer. Anal cancer is relatively rare, with just under 9,000 (about 2,700 men and 5,900 women) cases diagnosed annually. Over 90% of these cases are HPV-related.
Vulvar cancer. Vulvar cancer is another rare cancer, only accounting for about 1% of cancers in women. About 6,000 women are diagnosed annually. The HPV virus causes about 70% of these cancers.
Vaginal cancer. Just over 6,200 women are diagnosed with cancer of the vagina annually. About 70% of these uncommon cancers are caused by HPV.
Penile cancer. Penile cancer is rare — only about 2,000 cases occur annually in the U.S. Although it’s not a particularly deadly cancer (about 440 deaths a year), it takes both a physical and emotional toll. About 60% of penile cancers are HPV-related.

The HPV vaccine, if given to every child growing up in the United States, could prevent thousands of cancer diagnoses and deaths. Yet, there is stigma and misunderstanding about the vaccine.

The HPV Vaccine

Papillomavirus is only able to live on certain cells of the human body called squamous epithelial cells — these are cells found on our skin’s surface and on moist surfaces, called mucosal surfaces. This viruses’ attraction to these particular cells explains why the HPV causes warts on our skin and leads to squamous cell carcinoma on particular moist surfaces of the body.

There are many types of HPV — about 75% of them cause harmless warts — but the other 25% of them are the mucosal type, and these cause cancer.

As of 2020, Gardasil 9 is the only approved HPV vaccine in the U.S. This particular vaccine not only protects against HPV-16 and HPV-18, the two strains that cause the most cervical cancers, but it also protects against types 6 and 11 and five other high-risk types (31, 33, 45, 52 and 58). Gardasil 9 provides the most protection against HPV-caused cancers.

Updated Vaccination Recommendations from the American Cancer Society

The American Cancer Society has updated its guidelines and recommendations for the use of the HPV vaccine, recommending that children 9 to 12 to get the vaccine to help prevent multiple types of cancer.

Hpv Vaccine Recommendation

The American Cancer Society recommends that boys and girls get the HPV vaccine between the ages of 9 and 12. Teens and young adults through age 26 who are not already vaccinated should get the HPV vaccine as soon as possible.

“Teens who start the series late may need three shots instead of two,” said the American Cancer Society in their updated guidelines.

The CDC recommends the HPV vaccine given between ages 11 and 12, and the CDC also recommends “catch up” vaccinations for young adults up to age 26 who were not vaccinated as a pre-teen.

Boys And Girls Should Get Hpv Vaccination

Why has the American Cancer Society recently updated its recommendation to give the HPV vaccine at an earlier age? Research shows that younger people experience an improved immune response compared to people in their twenties who take the vaccine. Additionally, the vaccine only works if given before exposure to the HPV virus. By giving the vaccine early, parents are assured that their child will develop a robust immune response. At the ages of 9-12, children are still regularly seeing their pediatricians and can get this set of vaccinations at the appropriate timing.

The Bottom Line

HPV-caused cancer is real. It develops years after exposure to HPV. HPV infections don’t always cause symptoms, so adults don’t know if they are at risk for these cancers. Do your family a favor. Speak up and help educate your family about the HPV vaccine. The life that you save might be the life of your child, grandchild, or niece or nephew.

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