Although underutilized, this highly efficacious vaccine can help prevent numerous cancers including the most prevalent—head and neck and cervical cancers.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) causes more than 30,000 cancers annually. Although many people typically associate HPV with cervical cancer, the most common HPV-associated cancer is actually head and neck.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) most recent data, there are 2200 women and 11,800 men diagnosed with oropharyngeal (back of the throat) cancers annually in the United States. And HPV is thought to cause 70% of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States, according to CDC.
The CDC reports that HPV vaccination can prevent over 90% of cancers caused by HPV, as well as anal, vaginal, cervical, and vulvar precancers. More than 4 out of every 10 cases of cancer caused by HPV occur among men. Over 14,000 men get cancers caused by HPV in the US annually, so the HPV vaccine is also recommended for boys and young men.
Beomjune Kim, DMD, MD, FACS, who is a Head and Neck and Microvascular reconstructive surgeon at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Atlanta says that a new study demonstrated that vaccination can reduce oral HPV infection by 88%.
Typically, the recommendation has been to administer the vaccine at ages 11 or 12 years, before contact with the HPV virus. However, the CDC says the vaccine can be also be administered to teens and young adults through the age 26. And some adults ages 27 through 45 may elect to get the vaccine although there is less benefit as exposure to HPV has likely happened.
The vaccine series is 2 shots for children before the age of 15, and administered 6 to 12 months apart. The HPV vaccines can be given starting at age 9. For those who begin their HPV vaccine series on or after the age of 15, they will need 3 doses, given over 6 months.
Still, there is a subgroup of people who may have started the series of HPV vaccines, but for whatever reason didn’t complete them. They are eligible to get a catch-up series to be considered fully vaccinated.
“You start from where you left off,” Kim explained about the catch-up series vaccines. “For example, if you received the first dose and then 5 years later you want to catch up, you start from second dose.” He explains that patients will need 2 shots and patients go by the recommended interval protocol of at least 12 weeks between the second dose and third dose. After administration of the third dose, patients are considered fully vaccinated.
Contagion spoke to Kim who offered insights into the HPV vaccine’s efficacy and safety profile, the challenges of low vaccination rates, and strategies to begin a conversation with families and patients about getting the HPV vaccine.