Dentists Key to Promoting HPV Prevention


Seeing upwards of 85% of children in the United States each year, dentists are key to promoting HPV prevention methods, but more training and education is needed first.

New research out of the University of South Florida College of Public Health and published in the Journal of the American Dental Association is highlighting how dentists can contribute to educating patients about the risks of human papillomavirus (HPV) to aid in the fight against the infection.

Much like how dentists are now becoming involved in the fight against antimicrobial resistance, they can also aid in the fight against many infections that impact the mouth, such as sexually transmitted infections. As the most common sexually transmitted disease, HPV is directly related to about 3,200 new cases of all oropharyngeal cancers in women, and 13,200 in men, each year, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These cancers can affect the base of the tongue, the tonsils, and walls of the pharynx, all of which are seen and usually examined by dentists, but not usually brought up by the clinician unless there is an obvious issue, such as a lump.

"Given the alarming increase of HPV-attributable oropharyngeal cancers, dentists and dental hygienists may be key agents for promoting HPV prevention," lead investigator Ellen Daley, PhD, a professor at the University of South Florida College of Public Health stated in a press release on the research. "However, there's a serious need for better training and education in the dental community."

Dr. Daley and her colleagues determined that the biggest reason that dentists aren’t discussing HPV with their patients is not only a lack of education about how the infection is transmitted and methods to prevent infection, but also that they are uncomfortable talking about the sensitive subject of safe sex practices with their patients for a variety of reasons, one of which being the age of the patient. One study participant is quoted in the press release as saying, “I know as a professional, you really should be able to talk like that. But for me, sometimes with patients the same age as my grandpa, I find it very uncomfortable to talk with him about anything related to HPV and their sexual activity. I guess I'm a little weirded out by that.” Other practitioners stated they were unsure if they should discuss the topic with their adolescent patients or with the patients’ parents.

According to the investigators, “Providing communication skills and training about HPV can assist dentists and dental hygienists in educating patients about the HPV vaccine, and recommending that patients who are adolescents and young adults (up to age 26) get the vaccine,” according to the press release.

Because about 85% of children in the United States will see a dentist, these practitioners are another important group of health care providers that can educate young individuals about the importance of receiving the HPV vaccine. Dentists know full-well the ramifications and effects of oral cancers and can provide another perspective for patients as well. Indeed, part of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research’s goals for 2014-2019 is to, “Support the best science to improve dental, oral, and craniofacial health.” Listed in this goal is the objective to “encourage research building on its support of the Oral Cancer Genome Project, with the goal of guiding the shift toward precise diagnosis and individualized disease management. One area of special focus will be HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer, the incidence of which is on the rise.” According to Dr. Daley and her colleagues, “addressing dentists' HPV-related health literacy will allow them to better educate patients, ultimately contributing to the reduction of oropharyngeal cancers.”

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