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What to Know About HPV

December 27, 2019

Each year, there are approximately 12,000 new cases of HPV-associated cervical cancer. The human papillomavirus (HPV) causes more than 90% of all cervical cancers. About 80% of adults will get an HPV infection at some point in their lives.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. It can cause cancers of the genital regions in men and women, as well as cancers of the throat. Cervical cancer is predominantly caused by HPV. Thanks to the HPV vaccine, these types of cancer are preventable. The vaccine is FDA-approved to be given at age 9 and recommended for preteen boys and girls at age 11 or 12, when it is most effective. The FDA has also approved the vaccine for adults up to age 45.

Kevin Ault, MD, explains what you should know about HPV.


Roy Jensen, MD, and Kevin Ault, MD, discuss the HPV vaccine.

Roy Jensen: HPV infection does not discriminate, but how common is it in the population?

Kevin Ault: I think the best data, from some of the people at the CDC, is that about 80 or 90% of us are going to get an HPV infection some time during our adult life. It is a sexually transmitted infection, but it's really spread by skin to skin contact and so it doesn't take intercourse to spread it. And so it's incredibly common. Most people get infected in their teens and twenties.

Roy Jensen: So what types of cancers are caused by this virus?

Kevin Ault: Well, there's four or five cancers. I'm a gynecologist, as you said during the introduction, so I always think of cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is about 12,000 cases a year in the United States. It's almost exclusively caused by human papilloma virus infection. There are other gynecological cancers that are much rare, vulvar and vaginal cancer. There's a rare male cancer, penile cancer, but the cancer that's going to be number one in the next few years is the head and neck cancer, and that disproportionately affects males. Anal cancer is both genders. It's about equal between males and females. But the the story is going to change in the next two or three years. Cervical cancer rates are slowly drifting down and ENT head and neck cancers are going up, HPV related, and so it's going to change.

Roy Jensen: So there is a cancer vaccine, to guard against HPV related cancers, and new research is showing that the vaccine really works. Could you tell us about that research?

Kevin Ault: There's some brand new preliminary research from Finland. That country was involved 10 or 15 years ago, in the very beginning of the clinical trials that led to the vaccine we have now. What they've done is link their national cancer registry to the people who got involved in the trial and have been following them for 10 or 15 years. And based on this preliminary data, there are zero head and neck, anal, HPV related cancers, cervical cancers in the women that got vaccinated. And so they're following about 4,000 women who are vaccinated and about 15,000 people who didn't. And so they're beginning to have HPV related cancers in the un-vaccinated group, but in the vaccinated group, the number is zero. It's a pretty amazing number. I think that's the first data we have that HPV vaccine prevents cancer and I think it's also the first data we have that the HPV vaccine prevents head and neck cancer. I've been involved in this research for a couple of decades. The most recent study that we published looked at this new version of the vaccine and it was about 97% effective against diseases caused by the types that were in the newer version of the vaccine. We think we could prevent more than 90% of cervical cancers. Most of the head and neck, anal cancers, other cancers I mentioned are due to a specific type of HPV, called HPV 16, and so there's less variety in the non cervical disease. So we're guessing more than 90% of these HPV related cancers are going to be prevented.

Roy Jensen: So who should receive the HPV vaccine?

Kevin Ault: Well, there's a recommendation for young teenagers, young adolescents, 11- and 12-year-olds get at a series of vaccines. One of them is a whooping cough booster. The other one is a meningococcal meningitis vaccine. Flu vaccine, of course, is recommended universally in that age group. And then the other vaccine is the human papilloma virus vaccine.

Learn more about the HPV vaccination by scheduling an appointment with your doctor.

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