Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. But it doesn't have to be. For close to a decade, a vaccine to protect men and women from contracting HPV has been readily available. However, many people choose not to protect themselves, or parents choose not to protect their children. "It's an effective vaccine, said Deanna Kepka, PhD, MPH, an HPV researcher with University of Utah Health. "It's one of the most effective vaccines. Yet, here in Utah, less than 40% of our kids complete the vaccine series."
Low-risk HPV types are known as the cause of genital warts. However, in recent decades, high-risk types have been identified as the cause of numerous cancers. Women with HPV are at a higher risk for cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers, while men with the virus are at an increased risk for penile cancer. Both genders face higher risks of anal, throat, tonsil, and tongue cancer. "There are more than a dozen high-risk HPV types that cause cancer," Kepka said. "HPV causes about 34,000 cancers each year in the U.S." The vaccine protects against seven high-risk HPV types and two low-risk HPV types.
Many people may not know they are infected with HPV until they receive a cancer diagnosis. That's partially because very few screening tools are currently available. The most common, the Pap smear or cervical HPV test, is for women. The second is an anal Pap test, but that is not routine nor recommended by institutions like the National Cancer Institute or U.S. Preventive Services Task Force that issue guidelines. This is why it is so important to get vaccinated. "Once cancer presents in certain regions of the body, it can be biopsied to see if it is HPV-related," Kepka said. "But it's not a screening procedure for these regions of the body—it's once you already have cancer."
Vaccination against HPV is a multi-step process that is recommended in the pre-teen years, though it can be given to children as young as nine. In children, two doses of the vaccine are given six months apart; in older people, three doses are needed. There are no serious side effects, with the most common being pain or redness at the site of the injection. "We have a safe and effective way to prevent HPV and the complications that can come with it," Kepka said. "We should be using it."