Why the HPV Vaccine is So Important

The human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical cancer and is linked to a handful of other types of cancer, including a growing number of oropharynx (throat), penile, vulvar, vaginal, anal and rectal cancers. As many as 79 million people are infected with the virus, and HPV infections are responsible for 31,000 new cancer diagnoses each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although an HPV vaccine exists to prevent cancer, the CDC estimates that another 14 million Americans will contract the virus each year.

Almost all people who are sexually active will contract the virus in their lifetime, which means more than 80 percent of adults are at risk for developing an HPV-related cancer, says Electra D. Paskett, PhD, MSPH, associate director for population sciences at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center — Arthur G. James Cancer Hospita`l and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC — James).

To increase awareness, the OSUCCC — James has again joined more than 70 other National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated cancer centers in calling for increased HPV vaccinations among males and females aged 9 to 26 for the prevention of cancer. The statement urges healthcare providers and parents to vaccinate age-eligible children and points out the new vaccine schedule of just two doses of the 9-valent vaccine among children younger than age 15 (versus three doses for those aged 15 to 26).

"The vaccine has proven to be safe and effective across the world and among the millions of children and young adults who have received the vaccine," emphasized Paskett, who also holds the Marion N. Rowley Chair in Cancer Research. "But not everyone who needs the vaccine is getting it."

Recent data released by the CDC indicates that HPV-associated cancers are now affecting more Americans than ever before.

"HPV-associated" means these cancers are likely caused by an HPV infection that has not cleared the body. Researchers estimate that 79 percent of these cancers are HPV-positive, meaning a vaccine could prevent nearly 31,000 people from developing cancer every year.

Paskett likens the benefits of getting the HPV vaccine and its ability to prevent cancer to that of other diseases that vaccines now prevent, such as measles, mumps, polio and tuberculosis. "As more people get protected, the virus has fewer chances to reach both protected and unprotected people, and the disease can be eliminated," she says.

But instead of an increase in vaccination rates among youth and adolescents, only 40 percent of girls and 20 percent of boys are fully vaccinated. As such, these cancers are increasing in Americans.

"It's a national trend in the wrong direction," Paskett says. The vaccine is recommended for girls and boys aged 9 to 26, which to some seems young. However, as for other diseases, people need to be vaccinated before exposure. This means the vaccine needs to be administered before sexual activity and kissing begin, which is how the virus is spread, she says.

"Every parent should ask: If there were a vaccine I could give my children that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding ‘Yes'—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe," Paskett says.

To learn more about HPV-related research at the OSUCCC — James, visit cancer.osu.edu.

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