The HPV Vaccine

By: Joan Stewart, RT(T), BA HCA, Clinical Services Project Coordinator, TCCC

It was June 2006 when the FDA approved the vaccine known as Gardisil for pre-teen girls. A few things have changed since then but one thing remains certain: a vaccine against the human papillomavirus (HPV) can prevent almost every case of cervical cancer. What we have learned since then is the HPV link to other cancers and the need to vaccinate boys as well.

There are a number of different types of HPV and about 79 million Americans are infected with one or more of them. The common wart we see on our hands or feet is one of the cutaneous epithelial types. There are approximately 40 HPV types that infect only mucosal epithelial cells such as those found on the genitals, mouth and throat. Though most HPV infections go away on their own, some HPV infections persist. The mucosal epithelial HPV infections that don’t go away can cause changes in the cells in the infected area, which can lead to genital warts or cancer. We are also certain a persistent HPV infection of the mucosal epithelial type can cause:

  • Cervical cancer: The most common HPV cancer. Almost all cervical cancer is caused by HPV.
  • Vulvar cancer: About 69% are linked to HPV.
  • Vaginal cancer: About 75% are linked to HPV.
  • Penile cancer: About 63% are linked to HPV.
  • Anal cancer: About 91% are linked to HPV.
  • Cancer of the back of the throat: About 72% are linked to HPV. [Note: Many of these cancers may also be related to tobacco and alcohol use]

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), every year over 27,000 women and men are affected by a cancer caused by HPV. Cancer often takes years, even decades, to develop after a person gets infected with HPV. There is no way to know which people who have HPV infections will develop cancers. What we do know is most of these cancers could be prevented by HPV vaccination at ages 11-12. Luckily, we have a new version of the HPV vaccine that covers more HPV types than previously addressed.

When pre-teens are vaccinated with the new version, they only need two doses and it promotes a more robust immune response.Teen boys and girls who did not start
or finish the HPV vaccine series when they were younger should get it now. They can conclude their series with the new vaccine which covers more of the viruses under the supervision of a pediatrician or other informed provider. Young women can get an HPV vaccine through age 26, and young men can get vaccinated through age 21. So it is clear to those of us in oncology: make the choice to prevent cancer and vaccinate!

Cervical cancer usually does not have symptoms until it is quite advanced and hard to treat. For this reason, it is important for women to get checked regularly for cervical cancer. Screening tests can find early signs of disease so that problems can be treated before they ever turn into cancer. Routine exams by a gynecologist with a PAP screening test are recommended for all women beginning at the age of 21 and continuing through the age of 65 whether vaccinated or not.

Resource: National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease, Center for Disease Control website.

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