Despite our best efforts, a lot of people believe the HPV vaccine is just for cervical cancer in women. In fact, the HPV vaccine prevents many other cancers that are as dangerous or maybe even more dangerous than cervical cancer.
Too many people focus on preventing cancer in women rather than the fact that the HPV vaccine prevents many forms of cancer in anyone who has sex. It doesn’t matter if one is gay, lesbian, or straight, HPV, which is linked to cancers, can be transmitted sexually between partners.
This article is here to remind everyone that HPV is linked to many different cancers. And given that there are just a handful of ways to reliably prevent cancer, the HPV vaccine becomes one of the most powerful tools to prevent these dangerous, debilitating, and deadly diseases.
What is HPV?
Genital and oral human papillomavirus (HPV) infections are the most common sexually transmitted infections (STI) in the USA. HPV is generally transmitted from personal contact during vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
It’s important to note that there are more than 150 strains or subtypes of HPV that can infect humans – however, only 40 of these strains are linked to one or more different cancers. Of those 40 strains, most are fairly rare.
Although the early symptoms of HPV infections aren’t serious and many HPV infections resolve themselves without long-term harm, a significant portion of HPV infections is causally linked to many types of cancers in men and women. According to current medical research, here are some of the cancers that are linked to HPV:
In addition, there is some evidence that HPV infections are causally linked to skin and prostate cancers. The link to skin cancer is still preliminary, but there is much stronger evidence that HPV is linked to many prostate cancers.
HPV is believed to cause nearly 5% of all new cancers worldwide, making it almost as dangerous as tobacco in that respect. According to the CDC, roughly 79 million Americans are infected with HPV – approximately 14 million Americans contract a new HPV every year. Most individuals don’t even know they have the infection until the onset of cancer. The CDC also states that over 46,000 HPV-related cancers are diagnosed in the USA every year. It may be several times that amount worldwide.
Let’s look at this another way — if we could stop HPV infections completely today, we would probably reduce the incidence of many forms of cancer by over 46,000. That would make a significant reduction in the 1.9 million new cases of cancer in the USA in 2022. And the problem is much more than this — as opposed to most other cancers, the incidence of HPV-related cancers is rising quite rapidly. And the rate of HPV vaccination has dropped significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There were two HPV vaccines on the world market before 2014. GSK, also known as GlaxoSmithKline, produced Cervarix, a bivalent (protects against two HPV strains) vaccine. It has been withdrawn from the US market (although available in many other markets), because of the competition from the quadrivalent (immunizes against four different HPV strains) and 9-valent (against nine HPV strains) Gardasil vaccines.
Merck manufactures Gardasil, probably the most popular HPV vaccine in the world. The first version of the vaccine, quadrivalent Gardasil, targets the two HPV genotypes known to cause about 70% of cervical cancer and two other HPV genotypes that cause genital warts. In Europe and other markets, Gardasil is known as Silgard.
The newer Gardasil 9, approved by the FDA in 2014, is a 9-valent vaccine that protects against HPV types 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58. It targets the four HPV strains found in the quadrivalent version, along with five additional ones that are linked to cervical and other HPV-related cancers. Both versions of Gardasil are prophylactic, meant to be given to females or males before they become exposed to possible HPV infection through intimate contact.
Gardasil is one of the easiest and best ways to prevent a few dangerous and, to abuse the definition slightly, common cancers that afflict men and women. Without a doubt, the HPV vaccine prevents cancer.
Currently, in the United States, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends that preteen girls and boys aged 11 or 12 are vaccinated against HPV. The vaccine is also recommended for teenage girls and young women up to the age of 26 who did not receive it when they were younger, and teenage boys and young men up to the age of 21.
Some adults ages 27 through 45 years might decide to get the HPV vaccine if they did not get adequately vaccinated when they were younger. HPV vaccination of people in this age range provides less benefit, for several reasons, including that more people in this age range have already been exposed to HPV and have a lower immune response to the vaccine.
On the other hand, giving the HPV vaccine to younger children makes more sense. Their immune system is more robust, so when they receive the vaccine their immune system builds a longer-lasting immunity to the virus.
Let me sum this up so that if you come away from what I have with nothing else, you get this summary. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease. HPV causes 46,000 cancers a year in the USA alone. The HPV vaccine prevents becoming infected by HPV, which means you are protected from these cancers.
The HPV vaccine prevents cancer
The data is coming as the timeline since the introduction of the HPV vaccine about 10 years ago (depending on the country). Since the vaccine was initially targeted at young girls to prevent cervical cancer, the initial results focused on that. Large study after large study after large study has shown that after the launch of HPV vaccination programs, the incidence of HPV infections and cervical cancer have plummeted by over 90% in some cases.
I was once asked whether I knew of any miracles in medicine. Well, I don’t believe in miracles, I only believe in what can be proven with scientific evidence. But the reduction in the risk of cervical cancer (which has been proven by scientific evidence) is pretty close to being miraculous.
As more people are vaccinated against HPV and a herd effect is created, we will begin to see reductions in other types of HPV-related cancers. I think we will be seeing those studies in top medical journals within the next five years or so.
The HPV vaccine is safe
This point cannot be stressed enough — the HPV vaccine is demonstrably safe, probably one of the safest vaccines ever developed. However, the HPV vaccine was, until the COVID-19 vaccines became available, one of the most hated vaccines by the anti-vaccine crowd. Numerous myths and unfounded claims were made about the safety of the HPV vaccine, all of which have been shown to be false.
Large study after large study after large study after large study after large study has all shown that there are no serious (and non-serious) adverse events after receiving the HPV vaccine. And these aren’t small studies, they are huge ones with hundreds of thousands or even millions of patients.
There is just no robust, repeated, and reliable clinical evidence published anywhere that shows that there is a risk of any serious (or again, non-serious) adverse event after getting the vaccine. It is safe.
I know that for several years, the marketing and conversation about the HPV vaccine targeted young girls and cervical cancer. That’s mostly because the initial approval for the vaccine was for young girls and preventing cervical cancer.
But HPV is a nasty virus that causes a long list of dangerous cancers — anal, vaginal, vulvar, penile, oropharyngeal, and possibly others. If you had a magical method to stop these cancers, you would, for yourself and your children. Yet, we have that magical method — the HPV vaccine.
If you want to prevent anal cancer, which kills over 1700 Americans each year, get the HPV vaccine.
If you want to prevent vulva and vaginal cancers, which kill nearly 3200 Americans each year, get the HPV vaccine.
If you want to prevent oropharyngeal cancers, which kill over 11,000 Americans each year, get the HPV vaccine.
The HPV vaccine prevents cancer. And saves lives.
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