New Study Shows HPV Vaccine Also Likely Protects Against Throat Cancers

Adding to the growing benefits linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine that protects against cervical cancer, is a new study providing solid evidence that the vaccine will also likely help protect youth and young adults from developing throat cancers later in life. The study appeared in the journal PLoS One and was also written up in today’s New York Times.

The study followed approximately 7,500 women ages 18 – 25 years old – half of whom received the HPV vaccine and half of whom did not – getting the hepatitis A vaccine instead. After four years, both groups were tested for oral HPV infection, and the group that had received the HPV vaccine experienced a single case of HPV while the unvaccinated group experienced 15 cases, making the vaccine 93 percent effective.

Just as cervical infection with HPV is strongly linked with cervical cancer, oral infection with HPV – which occurs largely through oral sex – is linked with oropharyngeal cancer (related post, here).  Cutting down or eliminating oral infection with HPV can significantly lower the risk of developing certain types of throat cancer later in life. 

With a little over half of all sexually active heterosexual youth and young adults ages 15 – 24 in the United States reporting oral sex as their first major sexual experience, these findings can have major implication for future rates of throat cancer – if vaccination programs continue to take hold.  
Yet, the use of the HPV vaccine in girls – which requires three shots over a number of months – hovers around 14 percent, leaving much room for improvement.  And in boys – who are also recommended to have the vaccine – rates are much lower, around one percent in targeted ages.   
For a vaccine that is demonstrated to be safe and effective, and that is a major highlight in the fight against important cancers in the United States – and the world – it is meeting slow uptake, and at times, outright resistance by some parents and politicians.  That it is a newer vaccine – and one that targets a sexually transmitted infection – makes it understandable that some parents have some questions about it.  Yet, as new data and better information come out, the reasons parents may have for not getting the vaccine strip away quickly.

As we do a better job breaking down barriers to getting the vaccine – whether it’s through improving health care access or knowledge of the vaccine’s safety and benefits – it’s hard to imagine that high rates of parents will continue to avoid a vaccine that will lower their children’s risk not only of cervical and oropharyngeal cancer but also vaginal, penile, and anal cancers.  

Photo: Melissa P

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