HPV Causes Cancer — A Vaccine Can Prevent It

LIBERTY, March 5, 2018 - More than 30,000 Americans develop one of several kinds of cancer each year caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) — some of which will kill them. Fortunately, physicians say a too-seldom-used vaccine can protect people from HPV-caused cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and oropharynx (head and neck). 

The threat is real: About eight in 10 people in the U.S. will get the potentially deadly HPV virus during their lifetime. HPV is the world’s most common sexually transmitted infection, which also can spread through intimate skin-to-skin contact. People in their teens and 20s get most of the 14 million new HPV infections each year. The danger emerges much later.

These cancers appear about 20 years after the initial infection,” said Jason Terk, MD, a Keller pediatrician and member of TMA’s Be Wise — ImmunizeSM Physician Advisory Panel.

About 79 million Americans currently are infected with HPV, according to the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. That is nearly equal to the total populations of Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois combined. 

However, the vaccine against HPV can prevent 13 of the more than 120 HPV strains that cause cancer — and it’s available for adolescents and young adults. The HPV vaccine has been around for more than a decade, but Texas’ vaccination rate is very low — even lower than the national average, which trails the rate of numerous other countries. Knowing the power of prevention, the physicians of the Texas Medical Association (TMA) urge parents to get their adolescents vaccinated. 

“Make sure you get your kids vaccinated at 11 or 12 years of age, so they don’t have to worry about a cancer 20 years later,” said Dr. Terk. 

“Having a vaccine available that can prevent so many different cancers is incredible,” said Li-Yu Mitchell, MD, a Tyler family physician and member of TMA’s Be Wise — ImmunizeSM Physician Advisory Panel.

The HPV vaccine is 97 percent to 100 percent effective at preventing cancer-causing HPV infections. HPV shots have no known serious side effects. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends two doses of vaccine six months apart for boys and girls younger than 15, as the shots are most effective if given before people become sexually active.

Older teens and people in their 20s who are sexually active still can benefit from vaccination, however. The HPV vaccination covers nine strains of the virus, so the vaccine offers protection against any strain to which the person has not been exposed. The agency recommends three doses of the vaccine for those 15 and older.

HPV causes all cervical cancers, which often are lethal. Cervical cancer also is the world’s fourth most common cancer in women (according to the World Health Organization). 

Head-and-neck cancer diagnoses have become more frequent than cervical cancer. Between 2008 and 2012, 11,700 cases of cervical cancer in women and 12,600 head-and-neck cancers in males were reported, according to CDC. The agency blames about 70 percent of head-and-neck cancers on HPV. Head-and-neck cancers tend to affect mostly men, usually when they reach their 40s or 50s. 

For millions of people with HPV, the virus can be harmless and go away on its own. However, others will contract cancer, and infections from some HPV strains also cause genital warts and warts on the hands and feet. 

Even though the shot prevents cancer, HPV vaccination rates in the United States are low. Health reports show in 2015, 40.9 percent of Texas females got the HPV vaccinations, and less than one in four (24 percent) of males received the shots. Conversely, Australia has a 73-percent vaccination rate. 

Physicians strongly encourage the shots to prevent unnecessary illness and death. 

“As a physician, I have always recommended the HPV series of vaccines to my patients, and, as a parent, my three kids will definitely be getting the shots,” said Dr. Mitchell. “Given the benefits without significant risks, it just makes sense.”

Find more information on HPV and vaccinations on the TMA website.

TMA is the largest state medical society in the nation, representing more than 51,000 physician and medical student members. It is located in Austin and has 112 component county medical societies around the state. TMA’s key objective since 1853 is to improve the health of all Texans. Be Wise — Immunize is a joint initiative led by TMA physicians and medical students, and the TMA Alliance. It is funded in 2018 by the TMA Foundation thanks to H-E-B, TMF Health Quality Institute, Pfizer Inc., and gifts from physicians and their families. 

Be Wise — Immunize is a service mark of the Texas Medical Association.

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