Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted disease. There are more than 100 types of HPV; many are harmless and go away on their own. Thirteen types of HPV can lead to cancer, and are called “high-risk HPV”. Other types of HPV can cause warts, like genital warts, or those on the hands and feet. These types are called “low-risk HPV” and do not lead to cancer. Despite the prevalence of HPV, studies show that most American adults don’t realize the health dangers that HPV can lead to- mainly the variety of cancers linked to HPV. The most devastating part of the news is that HPV infection is easily prevented through vaccination, and it is thought that lack of knowledge on the topic may be the reason behind low vaccination rates throughout the country.
The survey highlighted that over 70 percent of adults don’t know that HPV can lead to anal, penile, and oral cancers in men and women, in addition to the danger of cervical cancer in women. Conducted by the National Cancer Institute, the study included data of 6,261 men and women who were surveyed about their HPV knowledge in 2017 and 2018. Respondents were between the ages of 18 and 101.
The HPV vaccination was initially recommended in 2006 for girls only as a way to prevent cervical cancer. But since then, the science has shown men, too, are at risk for HPV-related cancers, as well as conditions like genital warts. Boys weren’t added to the HPV vaccine recommendation schedule until 2011.
“Because of that time lag, there is this historic perception that HPV is a disease among women, that it only causes cervical cancer,” shared Ashish Deshmukh, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Health School of Public Health in Houston. That misconception has potentially resulted in men and boys not receiving the vaccination, not only putting themselves at risk, but their partners.
“HPV vaccination campaigns have focused heavily on cervical cancer prevention in women, [but] our findings demonstrate a need to educate both sexes regarding HPV and HPV vaccination,” Deshmukh explained, “Rates of cervical cancer have declined in the last 15 to 20 years because of screening,” he continued, but “on the other hand, there was a greater than 200% increase in oropharyngeal cancer rates in men and a nearly 150% rise in anal cancer rates in women.”
Some misconceptions about HPV also contribute to the low vaccination rates. Some myths include:
- MYTH: The virus will always clear on its own
- FACT: Most people with HPV don’t know they have it, because there are usually no symptoms. The HPV virus does clear on its own within two years, in some cases. But sometimes the immune system can’t fight off high-risk HPV, and the infection persists. While there are over 100 types of HPV, 40 types of HPV viruses enter the body during sexual contact and can potentially lead to serious health concerns, such as cervix, anus, penile, and oral cancers. This is why the vaccine plays such an important role in protecting people from the variations that may cause harm.
- MYTH: Only females need to worry about HPV
- FACT: Females are at risk of developing cervical cancer from HPV and should receive regular screening in the form of PAP smears (Papanicolaou test). The screening detects potentially precancerous and cancerous processes in the cervix. But, males are also at risk for developing HPV and related conditions, like genital warts. Men and women are both at risk of developing anal, penile, and oral cancers, as was highlighted in the most recent survey.
- MYTH: Children do not need to get the vaccine
- FACT: While they may not be at risk now, about 50% of new genital HPV infections occur in 15- to 24-year-olds each year. The key is prevention- currently, the CDC recommends that everyone up through age 26 get the HPV vaccine, starting around age 9, long before they may be exposed to the virus, which is transmitted through sexual contact. Even if they aren’t exposed as young adults, the vaccine helps protect them into their adulthood.
Kids need two shots, six months apart. Children who start the vaccine series on or after their 15th birthday need three shots, given over 6 months. Unvaccinated people up through age 45 may also get the shots based on personal HPV risks. To read more about the safety of the vaccine, you can visit the CDC HPV vaccination info page here. As with other vaccines, rigorous testing and clinical trials have been conducted to ensure their safety and effectiveness.
With nearly 14 million people contracting HPV infections every year in the United States, prevention and screenings are the best guard against HPV related cancers and other health concerns. Speak to your provider if you have questions about the vaccine or for more information about HPV.