Editor’s note: This post was revised February 2017 to include Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated HPV vaccine recommendation.
Human papillomavirus (HPV), an infection that affects about one in four people, is responsible for nearly 26,000 new cancer cases each year.
Cervical cancer is the most common cancer caused by HPV. In fact, 4,000 women die each year in the U.S. from cervical cancer. HPV also can cause genital warts and other cancers, including throat cancer. Fortunately, an HPV vaccine exists that can prevent most of these cancers.
However, some parents are uncomfortable talking to their children about the HPV vaccine because it protects against a sexually transmitted infection. And few teens want to talk to mom and dad about anything having to do with sex.
HPV: A growing concern
An estimated 79 million Americans currently are infected with HPV, with 14 million new infections per year. HPV is so common that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports “nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some time in their lives.”
HPV actually is a group of more than 100 kinds of viruses. Some are harmless while others can lead to cancer or genital warts.
HPV vaccines reduce cancer risks
Fortunately, two vaccines can prevent HPV, but they must be used well before a person becomes sexually active. The HPV vaccines are recommended routinely for 11- and 12-year-olds and can be received as young as age 9. And that’s often a problem for some parents.
“Nobody wants to think about their kids having sex at such a young age,” said Dr. James Meyer, a Marshfield Clinic adolescent medicine specialist. “Many parents also perceive that getting the vaccine will make their kids more likely to engage in early sexual behavior.” But science has shown that if handled correctly by the child’s health care provider, information about HPV and its strong links to cancer can instead be a powerful deterrent.
Signs and symptoms
HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact, usually during sexual contact with a person who has the virus.
Most HPV infections go away on their own and do not cause problems. But sometimes infection can lead to cancer or genital warts. There is no way to know who will develop cancer from HPV. Many people don’t even know they have HPV because there may be no symptoms. When symptoms are present, they can include:
- Genital warts, usually flesh-colored and with a cauliflower-like appearance
- In women, warts are found on the vulva, around the anus and inside the vagina and on the cervix
- In men, warts are found on the penis and around the anus.
Vaccine rates remain low
CDC recommends 11- to 12-year olds receive two doses of HPV vaccine at least six months apart. Those who start the series later, ages 15-26, need three doses.
“Currently only one-third of adolescent girls – and less than 14 percent of boys – eligible for the vaccine get the required doses,” Meyer said. A study funded by the CDC, underway at Marshfield Clinic, seeks to improve HPV vaccine coverage rates among Clinic patients.
As part of that study, parents and adolescents may be surveyed before and after their Clinic visits to measure any change in their attitudes and beliefs about the vaccine.
Much like the anti-smoking campaigns of years past, researchers want to convey the awful truth about the risk of cancer from HPV. We now can prevent most of these common HPV-related cancers.
“Cervical and throat cancers are terrible, and we want to prevent as many cases as possible,” Meyer said. “Vaccinating against HPV is effective, safe and will save lives.”
For more information about HPV and cervical cancer, visit the CDC fact sheet.