Each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, estimates nearly 80 million people are infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV), which has been linked to cancers of the mouth, throat, rectum, and cervix.
HPV is a group of more than 150 related viruses that can infect females and males.
There are often no symptoms of infection and the infected person usually won’t even know they have the virus, but there are approximately 14 million new infections each year in the U.S. — about 50 percent occurring in people ages 15 to 24.
That equals about 19,000 teens and young adults each day, but the news regarding HPV isn’t all bad. There is a vaccine that protects against 90 percent of these HPV-related cancers.
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How is HPV spread? The spectrum of HPV viruses often is transmitted through intimate oral, genital, or anal skin-to-skin contact. HPV is so common that nearly all men and women get infected with the virus at some point in their lives.
HPV clears up on its own in most cases, but it can cause more serious health problems — like genital warts, cervical cancer, anal cancer, mouth/throat cancer, and vulvar/vaginal cancers — if it doesn’t.
How is HPV treated? There is no treatment for HPV, but precancerous complications of HPV infection can be treated with cryotherapy or surgery. The best protection, for yourself or your child, from HPV-related cancers to vaccination.
The CDC recommends starting the vaccination for both girls and boys at ages 11 or 12, but it can still be given up to the age of 26. The vaccine works best when given in preteen years, due to the increased immune response at those ages. Because of this, when the vaccine is given by age 14,
It requires two vaccinations, given 6 to 12 months apart, for patients age 14 or younger and a series of three vaccinations in six months when given between the ages of 14 to 26.
Why is it a problem in Missouri? Missouri ranked 46th out of 50 states with only 28.3 percent of girls completing the vaccination series, according to immunization rate data from 2014. The news is worse for boys as Missouri ranked last in the nation with only 11.3 percent receiving the vaccination doses.
The Kansas City Medical Society has sponsored an HPV Vaccination Task Force, which is working with physicians throughout the area in an effort to improve those rates.
According to the Mayo Clinic website, an HPV vaccination may be the best defense against cervical cancer: “For those who aren’t vaccinated, most cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV strains that usually don’t cause warts, so women often don’t realize they’ve been infected. Early stages of cervical cancer typically cause no signs or symptoms.”
The HPV vaccine should not replace regular Pap smear tests, “which can detect precancerous changes in the cervix that might lead to cancer,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
The current recommendation is that women ages 21 to 29 have a Pap test every three years or as directed by their doctor, but education about HPV is the key to having an informed conversation with your healthcare provider. Knowing the facts will result in increased vaccination rates and decreased incidence of preventable cancers.
For more information please visit, the the Mayo Clinic’s website or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/parents/protecting-children/index.html
Author Tammy D. Landrum is a public health clinical nurse manager with the Jackson County Health Department. She also serves on the Lee’s Summit’s Health Education Advisory Board — a mayor-appointed, volunteer board that promotes and advocates community health by assessing health issues, educating the public and government agencies, developing plans to address health issues, encouraging partnerships, and evaluating the outcomes.