Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection, with more than 200 different types of HPV. Most people who contract HPV show no symptoms of infection. The majority of genital HPV infections are harmless and go away on their own; however, some types of HPV can cause genital warts or certain types of cancer if left untreated.
More than 35,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with cancer caused by HPV each year. “Although it’s true that HPV causes most cervical cancer cases in women, it can cause a variety of cancers in men too,” said Melissa Nicosia, MD, director of obstetrics and gynecology at Mather Hospital.
A combination of cervical cancer screenings, treatment of precancerous cells on the cervix, and HPV vaccines has led to drops in cervical cancers over the last two decades in the U.S. Unfortunately, other cancers caused by HPV are on the rise. A recent study found that while cervical cancer cases have fallen by about one percent per year over the last 20 years, especially among younger women, oral and throat cancers have increased by nearly three percent per year in men. According to 2021 data from the American Society for Clinical Oncology, HPV caused a five-fold increase of head and neck cancers in young men from 2001 to 2017. Most of these cases are among people over 40 who were likely exposed to HPV earlier in life, before the availability of the HPV vaccine.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for HPV and, unlike a Pap smear or HPV test that can detect precancerous cells on the cervix in women, there is no test to detect HPV infection that can lead to HPV cancers in men. “The best way to protect yourself against HPV is to get vaccinated,” Dr. Nicosia said. The HPV vaccine can prevent over 90 percent of cancers caused by HPV. The vaccine is recommended for everyone, male or female, ages 9 to 26, but if you’re older than that, you should still ask your doctor as there may be benefits up to age 45. If you’ve already had HPV-related precancerous conditions, there’s some research that suggests the vaccine may stimulate your immune system and reduce the risk of recurrence, potentially decreasing your risk of developing cancer.
Although there’s still a lot of vaccine hesitancy, there is now more than 15 years of data showing that these immunizations are safe and effective. The HPV vaccine can prevent over 90 percent of cancers caused by HPV. By vaccinating kids before they become sexually active, we can almost guarantee that they won’t become infected with this potentially deadly virus.