Genital human papillomavirus (HPV) will afflict about 8 in 10 people during their lifetime and will cause more than 35,000 new mostly genital and throat cancers this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world, and while there is no treatment for HPV, there is a vaccine that can prevent 90% of HPV-related cancers if given at the right age, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).
“Getting your 9-to-12-year-old son or daughter vaccinated now is the best way to prevent HPV cancers and can help keep them healthy well into adulthood,” said Kristy Houston, an educational consultant in Capital Blue Cross’ Health Promotion and Wellness department, and Capital’s representative in the cancer society’s HPV Learning Collaborative.
Though an effective HPV vaccine has been available since 2006, vaccine awareness has declined in the past several years, especially among minorities, rural populations, males, the poor, and those over 65, the CDC says.
While vaccinations have led to a decline in cervical cancer, especially in younger women, the Journal of the American Medical Association reports the rate of oral and anal/rectal cancer has increased among men.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine say flagging HPV vaccine awareness is due partly to concerns about vaccine safety and, to a much smaller degree, fears that vaccine protection could encourage sexual promiscuity.
With more than 270 million doses distributed worldwide since 2006, including 135 million doses in the U.S., the HPV vaccine has a long and reliable safety record, and is proven to be highly effective, according to data from the CDC, ACS, and World Health Organization.
That vaccine led to an 88% decrease in infections of HPV types that cause most HPV cancers and genital warts among teen girls, and an 81% drop among young, adult women. The percentage of cervical precancers caused by HPV dropped by 40% in vaccinated women.
Ideally, the HPV vaccine should be given before potential exposure to sexual contact, according to the CDC:
Two doses for all children 9-12, with at least five months between the first and second shot.
Three doses for 15 to 26-year-olds with at least four weeks between the first and second shot, and five months between the first and third shot.
Unvaccinated adults aged 27 to 45 should speak to their doctor about the risk of new HPV infections and the benefits of vaccination.