A surprisingly common STD that can lead to cancer


When it comes to getting our kids vaccinated against things like measles, mumps, rubella, polio, and even chickenpox, it’s a pretty easy decision.

However, a vaccine that can help prevent cancer in both boys and girls makes parents hesitate a little – especially when they learn how this particular virus is transmitted.

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, can be transmitted from person to person through vaginal, anal, or oral sex with a carrier, explained Dr. Courtney Roberts, Gynecologist and Obstetrician at UCHealth. The virus can be transmitted even if a carrier has no signs or symptoms and anyone who is sexually active can get HPV – even if they have only been with one person.

HPV is a very common infection that many people don’t know has and that can go away on its own.

“Experts predict that most people who have sex will be exposed to HPV, that is how common it is,” said Roberts. “It’s kind of a cold in the STD world.”

The human papillomavirus (HPV) causes warts, which are mostly found on the hands and feet. Certain strains also infect the genitals. Although most warts are non-cancerous (non-cancerous), some strains of HPV have been linked to cancers, particularly cervical cancer. (Image credit Getty Images)

However, in some people, the virus can cause serious health problems such as HPV-related cancers.

“Like any virus, it affects cells – if it stays in those cells for a long period of time, it can slowly change those cells and become precancerous or cancerous over time,” said Roberts. “And just like any other virus, like the flu or COVID, there are multiple strains.”

Experts report that there are around 150 different types of HPV strains, Roberts said.

“Of course we are always learning more because viruses just mutate,” she added.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that 46,143 HPV-related cancers were diagnosed each year from 2014 to 2018 – 25,719 cases in women and 20,424 cases in men.

In women, cervical cancer is the most common HPV-related cancer, accounting for over 90%, while 60% of penile cancers in men are HPV-related. The CDE also reported that men are more prone to HPV-related cancer of the throat and tongue, while doctors are seeing more women with HPV-related cancer of the anus.

Dr. Robin Lacour of Banner Health. (Courtesy photo of Banner Health)

Although throat and tongue cancers are typically associated with tobacco and alcohol, studies have found that 70% of these cancers are due to HPV.

And while the medical community has seen a decline in HPV-associated cervical cancers over the past 16 years, doctors have seen an overall 2.36% increase in HPV-associated cancers of the throat, anus, and rectum annually, the Journal of Clinical Oncology reported.

HPV-related cancers can take years – even decades – to develop after a person becomes infected with the virus, and there is no way of knowing who will or will not develop cancer from HPV, explained Dr. Robin Lacour, a gynecological oncologist at Banner Health in Greeley.

“Most people with a high-risk HPV type show no signs of infection until it causes serious health problems like cancer,” Lacour said.

To date, the only test that can detect an HPV-related cancer is a Pap smear, which looks for abnormal cells on the cervix, she added.

For HPV-related cancer of the penis, anal, vulva, or throat that has no symptoms, patients should look for visible changes such as color, thickness, sores, bleeding, discharge, or lumps. Itching and / or pain in these areas can also be signs of a possible problem.

An available HPV vaccine protects against nine types of HPV, including strains 16 and 18, which cause the greatest risk of cervical cancer. (Image credit Getty Images)

HPV can also cause genital warts or growths on the skin of the vulva, vagina, cervix, penis, scrotum, or anus. Genital warts are usually painless and can be treated or removed similar to warts on the hands or feet. Genital warts are not dangerous and cannot cause cancer, but they can become irritated and uncomfortable. People with genital warts can also pass the virus that caused the warts on to people they have sex with.

A vaccine to contain cancer

In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first generation of an HPV vaccine, Gardasil, which prevented four of the HPV cancer-causing strains – 6,11,16 and 18. In 2014, the FDA approved Gardasil9, which did the Protection against HPV-related cancers includes strains 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58.

“This is the best that people can do to prevent these high-risk HPV things,” said Roberts. “This (the vaccine) has been known to the public for over 20 years and there really is no evidence that this is an unsafe vaccine. The most common occurrences are redness and pain at the injection site. “

The vaccine was originally approved for use against cervical cancer. In 2020, however, the FDA expanded its approval to include the prevention of throat and tongue cancer and other head and neck cancers.

HPV vaccination is recommended for routine vaccination at 11 or 12 years of age, but vaccination can be started at 9 years of age. (Image credit Getty Images)

The vaccine can be given to children aged 9 years old to adults aged 45 years old. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, a federal agency, suggests that both boys and girls be vaccinated against HPV between the ages of 11 and 12. Studies have shown that the vaccine elicits a higher immune response in children 11-12 years of age than it does in older teenagers or adults.

Depending on the age of the patient, they will receive either two or three doses of the vaccine over a period of six to twelve months.

Thinking about getting your 9 year old child vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease can shudder any parent.

“That sounds very young and scares parents because it’s a sexually transmitted disease. “But that’s not supposed to prevent an STD; This serves to prevent cancer. “

Dr. Courtney Roberts with UCHealth. (Courtesy photo of UCHealth)

The vaccine is most effective before a person has been exposed to the HPV virus, although those with the virus can still benefit from the vaccine.

Studies have shown that since the vaccine was first introduced, there has been an 88% decrease in women ages 14 to 19 and a decrease in the prevalence of four of the HPV-related carcinogenic strains in women ages 20 to 24. reports the Kaiser Family Foundation.

For adults who are outside the recommended age range for the vaccine, Lacour recommends continuing to have regular Pap smears and physical exams, as well as looking for lumps or changes in areas such as the throat, tongue, and genital area.

Since the virus is an equal opportunity invader, both men and women should be vaccinated, Lacour said.

Roberts and Lacour recommend parents and adults ages 45 and younger to speak to their doctors about HPV and whether the vaccine is something to consider for themselves or their children.

Ways To Protect Yourself From HPV

People can protect themselves from the transmission of HPV by using condoms, but there really is no guaranteed method other than complete and complete lifelong abstinence that can protect a person from developing HPV.

“That’s the difficult thing about it. Even when you’re with someone you know very trustworthy and accommodating, they might have it and not know, ”said Roberts. “Using condoms will definitely help with this, but condoms are very prone to user error and some shortcomings. It’s not 100%, but it would help. “

Parents can still teach their children safe sex and monogamous relationships, but the HPV vaccine is also about being proactive, not reactive.

“You can still talk to your children about these things and protect them from something they are likely to be exposed to later,” commented Roberts.

For more information about HPV, the HPV vaccine, how to protect yourself from the virus, and other educational information, visit www.cdc.gov/hpv/.


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