An Alarming Number of Adults Aren't Aware HPV Can Cause Cancer

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection. According to the Center for Disease Control, 79 million Americans, most in their late teens and early 20s, are infected with HPV. Yet recently-published research out of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston found that more than 70% of adults living in the United States were unaware that HPV can cause anal, penile, and oral cancers.

The study, published in the current issue of the JAMA Pediatrics, surveyed 2,564 men and 3,697 women. The findings also indicated that two-thirds of men and one-third of women ages 18-26 did not know that HPV causes cervical cancer.

Ashish A. Deshmukh, PhD, MPH, assistant professor at UT Health School who led the study, also found that only 19% of men and 31.5% of women who are eligible for the HPV vaccine or have vaccine-eligible family members, have received the vaccine from a healthcare provider.

While there are over 100 strains of HPV, there are roughly 14 that are thought to be “high risk,” meaning they increase the likelihood of causing cancer, whereas the others are thought to be low risk. The current nonavalent Gardasil 9, protects against nine high risk strains, including 16 and 18, the two most highly implicated in cancer.

For boys and girls ages 9-14, the CDC recommends a two-dose immunization. For men and women 15-years or older, the CDC recommends that Gardasil 9 is administered three times, with a mandatory waiting period of at least two months in between doses. Last year, the FDA approved of Gardasil shots for men and women until the age of 45 (previous recommendations were only until age 26), citing that the vaccine is still 88% effective in older adults.

“The lack of knowledge may have contributed to low HPV vaccination rates in the United States.”

Still, a 2018 report by the CDC notes that only 51% of those in the recommended age groups were vaccinated.

“The lack of knowledge may have contributed to low HPV vaccination rates in the United States,” said Deshmukh in a press release.

“Low levels of HPV knowledge in these older age groups is particularly concerning, given that these individuals are (or will likely be) parents responsible for making HPV vaccination decisions for their children,” said Kalyani Sonawane, PhD, assistant professor at UTHealth School of Public Health and the study’s co-lead author.

Deshmukh said, “HPV vaccination campaigns have focused heavily on cervical cancer prevention in women. Our findings demonstrate a need to educate both sexes regarding HPV and HPV vaccination.” The lead author continued, “Rates of cervical cancer have declined in the last 15 to 20 years because of screening. On the other hand, there was a greater than 200% increase in oropharyngeal cancer rates in men and a nearly 150% rise in anal cancer rates in women.”

The rate of cancers in gay and bisexual men is even higher than that of straight men. Gay and bisexual men are 17 times more likely to develop anal cancer that men who only have sex with women. This is due to similar biology between the anus and cervix; just like in the cervix, HPV can mutate normal healthy cells into cancerous ones.

Further research will need to explore the best ways to educate men and women about HPV to increase vaccine uptake.

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