Many people know that HPV (or human papillomavirus) can cause cervical cancer. But it turns out that many people don’t know HPV can cause several other types of cancers, too.
A recent Henry Ford Health study polled college students on their awareness of HPV-related cancers, which revealed that approximately 70% of students were aware that HPV causes cervical cancer and 53% were aware that HPV causes vaginal cancer. But just 40% were aware that HPV causes vulvar cancers, 39% were aware that HPV causes oropharyngeal (or throat) cancers, 38% were aware that HPV causes penile cancers, and 34% were aware that HPV causes anal cancers.
“The findings of our study reinforce the need to increase knowledge about HPV and its association with various types of cancers and thus increase HPV vaccination rates,” says Eric Adjei Boakye, Ph.D., assistant scientist at Henry Ford Health. “While there is a standard cancer screening test for cervical cancer, there aren’t standard screening tests for any of these other cancers that are associated with HPV.”
How HPV Can Contribute To Cancer
HPV is spread through physical, skin-to-skin contact (not just through sex). The majority of people diagnosed with HPV are in their late teens to mid-20s. In most people, the virus will clear naturally within nine to 24 months, but in some, the infection can stick around and cause changes in the cells that it infects. These changes can lead to the development of cancer.
In the United States, HPV causes virtually all cases of cervical cancer. It also causes 90% of anal cancers, 69% of vaginal cancers, 51% of vulvar cancers, 40% of penile cancers and 70% of oropharyngeal cancers. These are cancers that occur in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils. The incidence of HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer has increased by more than 225% within the past three decades.
Getting The HPV Vaccine Can Help Prevent Cancer
The HPV vaccine—which is FDA-approved for everyone ages 9 through 45—can prevent more than 90% of cancers caused by HPV, according to the CDC. That said, vaccination rates are quite low. This is likely because of myths surrounding the HPV vaccine. Some believe vaccination will promote sexual activity among adolescents (or make them more sexually promiscuous). And many people assume the vaccine is only necessary for women.
“The HPV vaccine was first approved by the Food & Drug Administration in 2006 for females as a cervical cancer prevention method,” says Dr. Adjei Boakye. “At that time, the link between cervical cancer and HPV was most well-known. But we’ve learned that HPV causes more cancers than just cervical cancer, and it was approved for males in 2009.”
The CDC recommends starting the HPV vaccine series before your 15th birthday—specifically, from ages 11 to 13—but you can also begin at nine years old according to the American Cancer Society. From ages nine to 15, the HPV vaccine series consists of two doses. The second dose should be given six to 12 months after the first dose. Three doses of the HPV vaccine are recommended for teens and young adults who start the series between ages 15 through 26, and for people with weakened immune systems. The second dose should be given one to two months after the first dose, and the third dose should be given six months after the second dose.
Three doses are recommended for people who are immunocompromised for ages 9 through 26. If you want to get the HPV vaccine from ages 27 through age 45, talk to your doctor to see if you will likely benefit from it.
“I strongly recommend everyone who is eligible get the HPV vaccine,” says Jennifer Burgess, D.O., a primary care physician at Henry Ford Health. “My own daughter received the series. If you’re heading back to school as a college student, and you’re not already vaccinated against HPV, it’s a good idea to do so now.”
Eric Adjei Boakye, Ph.D., is an assistant scientist in the Department of Public Health Sciences at Henry Ford Health.
Jennifer Burgess, D.O., is a family medicine doctor at Henry Ford Health. She sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center—Commerce Township and Henry Ford Medical Center—West Bloomfield.