HPV (Human Papillomavirus) is actually a group of over 100 sub-types of viruses in the same class. It is estimated that about 20 million Americans are infected each year and while it often goes away on its own, the more virulent strains of the virus can cause serious illnesses. It is estimated that about 80% of people will get HPV infection in their lifetime. More than 30 strains of this virus are known to cause cervical, mouth and throat cancer. Over 70% of cervical cancer in women is caused by HPV. The virus is transferred through sexual contact. Every year in the U.S. about 10,000 women get cervical cancer and 3,700 die from it. It is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among women around the world. It is also associated with several less common types of cancer in both men and women and it also can cause genital warts (growths on the surface tissues) and warts in the upper respiratory tract. According to data published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2018, during the period 2011-2015 there were 42,700 new cases of HPV-associated cancers each year, including about 24,400 among women and about 18,300 among men. Cervical cancer is the most common HPV-associated cancer in women, and oropharynx cancers (cancers of the back of the throat, including the tongue and tonsils) are most common among men. HPV-associated cancers are defined as those that occur in parts of the body where HPV is often found. The incidence rate of HPV-associated cancers (number of cases per 100,000 persons) varied by sex and race/ethnic group. The CDC found that in each racial group, women had higher incidence than men. Asian/Pacific Islanders had the lowest incidence. White women had an incidence of 13.9 cases per 100,000 persons and black women had 13.6 cases per 100,000. White men also had more cases than black men (10.9 per 100,000 versus 9.2 per 100,000, respectively. HPV-attributable cancer is one in which there is documented genotype from the cancer tissue. On this basis, about 90% of cervical and anal cancers and 70% of vaginal and vulvar cancers are documented to be caused by HPV.
Although there is no currently available cure for the virus itself, treatment is available for addressing the lesions caused by the virus. These include cryosurgery (freezing the warts), electrocautery (burning the warts off with electrical current, laser therapy (use of intense light to destroy the lesions). A prescription cream (do not use over-the-counter creams) is available for some cases of warts. However, preventing the cancers is better than having to treat them. If every parent were to ask if there were a vaccine that could be given to their children that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, the resounding answer is YES – the HPV (human papillomavirus vaccine). It has been available for more than 10 years and is real cancer prevention. It can prevent over 90% of the HPV causing cancers from ever occurring. So, who should get HPV vaccination? The CDC, which develops recommendations regarding all vaccines given in the U.S., advises the following:
-All children aged 11 or 12 years should receive two (2) vaccine shots 6 to 12 months apart. If given less than 5 months apart, a third shot will be required.
-HPV vaccine is recommended for young women through age 26 and young men through age 21
-Adolescents who got their first dose at age 15 or older require 3 doses.
-Persons who have completed a valid series with any of the current HPV vaccines do not need any additional doses.
Like any other immunizations that guard against viral infections, HPV vaccines stimulate the body’s immune system to produce antibodies that bind the virus and prevent it from infecting cells. The current vaccines are based on the virus-like particles from the surface components of the virus, making them non-infectious. Some parents may ask, “Why do the children need to receive the vaccine at such a young age?” While it is always better to give vaccines earlier rather than later, getting the HPV vaccine early protects your child long before they are exposed to the virus that causes several types of cancer. Side effects from this vaccine are extremely rare and are usually very mild, if they do occur, such as soreness at the site and possibly a brief low-grade fever. Getting the HPV vaccine does not make your child start engaging in sexual activity.
If you have questions about this vaccine, ask your or your child’s physician, but do not place your child or yourself in jeopardy of a cancer or a viral wart that can easily be prevented.
Just as the philosopher has said, “An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.” Sometimes in health disorders, the treatment can be more bothersome than the disorder itself. So, why not prevent a disease that you do not need to be victimized by?
“The prudent sees danger and hides (protects) himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it.” (Prov. 27:12)
“The way of the fool is right in his own eyes, but the wise man listens to advice.” (Prov. 12:15)
“Where there is no guidance a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” (Prov. 11:14)
John W. Downing, Jr., M.D.