What is HPV?
HPV is the abbreviation for human papillomavirus which is a group of more than 150 related viruses. It is the most common sexually transmitted virus and nearly all men and women will have it at some point in their lives. HPV is contracted through vaginal, anal, or oral sex, or any type of intimate skin-to-skin contact. It can even be passed when an infected person has no signs or symptoms.
HPV can cause cancers of the cervix, vagina and vulva in women, cancers of the penis in men, and cancers of the anus and back of throat in both men and women. These cancers rarely show symptoms until severely advanced, which makes them dangerous and difficult to treat.
The best way to prevent HPV in your child is by making sure he/she receives the HPV vaccination during the recommended age range.
Symptoms of HPV
Most people with HPV do not exhibit any symptoms or health problems. Sometimes it can cause genital warts, which is the only form of visible HPV. Unfortunately, the high-risk types of HPV are invisible, but are the most dangerous forms that can cause cancer if not treated.
Due to the lack of symptoms, regular checkups are crucial for discovering HPV. For girls, a Pap test can detect abnormal cells in your cervix. It does not directly test for cancer, or even HPV, but it can discover abnormal cell changes caused by HPV. Unfortunately, these tests are not available for boys, which emphasizes the importance of males getting vaccinated.
High-risk HPV can cause normal cells to become abnormal, which in return can lead to cancer. However, the good news is that most people recover from HPV infections without any health problems. There is no exact explanation for why some people develop long-term HPV infections, precancerous cell changes or cancer. But we do know that if there is a chance to prevent these long-term infections, it is best to prevent it as soon as recommended by making sure your child receives the HPV vaccination.
How does HPV cause cancer?
In most cases, when a person contracts HPV, their immune system prevents the virus from causing serious harm. But, in a small amount of those who contract it, the virus becomes a long-term infection and can lead to the normal cells becoming abnormal, cancerous cells which is known as high-risk HPV.
HPV infects epithelial cells, which are arranged in layers that cover the inside and outside surfaces of the body, including the skin, throat, genital tract and anus. Once HPV enters an epithelial cell, the virus begins to make the protein it encodes. The two proteins made by high-risk HPV are E6 and E7. These interfere with cell functions that normally prevent excessive growth, allowing the cell to grow in an uncontrolled matter and avoid cell death.
Many times, these infected cells are eliminated by the immune system. However, if persistently infected cells continue to grow, they may develop mutations in cellular genes that promote more cell growth. This leads to the formation of an area of precancerous cells, and ultimately, a cancerous tumor.
There are certain factors that may increase the risk that an infection with a high-risk HPV type may develop into cancer. These include:
- Smoking or chewing tobacco
- Having a weakened immune system
- Having many children
- Long-term oral contraceptive use
- Poor oral hygiene
- Chronic inflammation
After an initial HPV infection, it can take between 10 and 30 years until a tumor forms.
Types of cancer caused by HPV
- HPV can cause cancer of the anus in both men and women and is more common in people with HIV. Screening tests for anal cancer are not routinely recommended for all people. However, some experts recommend anal cytology testing for people at a higher risk of anal cancer, including men who have sex with men, women who have had cervical cancer or vulvar cancer, anyone who is HIV-positive, and anyone who has had an organ transplant.
- The most common cancer linked to HPV in women. Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. Cervical cancer can be found early and even prevented with screening tests such as the Pap test and the HPV test. More than half of the women in the United States who are diagnosed cervical cancer have never had or rarely had a Pap test.
Oropharyngeal cancer (cancers of the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils)
- HPV is found is some mouth and throat cancers in men and women. The ones found in the back of the throat are typically HPV-related. These are the most common HPV-related cancers in men. There is no screening test to find these cancers early, but many can be found during routine exams by a dentist, doctor, dental hygienist or self-exam.
- In men, HPV can cause cancer of the penis and is more common in men with HIV. Unfortunately, there is no screening test to find early signs of penile cancer. However, almost all penile cancers start under the foreskin of the penis and may be noticed early in the course of the disease.
- The majority of vaginal cancers contain HPV. Many vaginal pre-cancers also contain HPV. These pre-cancers may be present for years before turning into cancer. Sometimes, they can be detected with the same Pap test that is used to test for cervical cancer and pre-cancer. If a pre-cancer is found, it can be treated.
- Also caused by HPV, this is the cancer of the vulva, the outer part of the female genital organs. There is no standard screening test for this cancer other than physical exams, but it is much less common than cervical cancer.
Why is it important to get my child vaccinated?
When HPV vaccines are skipped or delayed, it contributes to the burden of cancer throughout your child’s generation.
Nearly all people will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives. Currently, 80 million Americans are infected with HPV and about 14 million people in the United States become infected each year. The virus also can lead to six types of deadly cancers. If a person is not vaccinated, the infection continues to spread.
These numbers can only be decreased by increasing the amount of people vaccinated. Clinical trials have shown that HPV vaccines provide close to 100% protection against cervical precancers and genital warts. There also has been a 64% reduction in HPV infections among teen girls in the United States since the vaccine was first recommended in 2006. HPV is being reduced, but it is still the most common sexually transmitted virus. That is why you need to have your child take the shot and prevent cancer now more than ever.
The link between HPV and cancer
Most people who contract HPV will fight the infection off naturally in about two years. However, sometimes the infection stays and can cause cancers and other diseases.
HPV causes normal cells in the infected skin area to turn abnormal. Every year in the United States, this leads to 30,700 cancers in both men and women. HPV cancer usually does not have any symptoms until it has greatly advanced, which makes it very serious and difficult to treat once diagnosed.
These cancers include cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus and oropharyngeal (head, neck, and throat). HPV is actually believed to cause 70% of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States. One of the most common cancers caused by HPV is cervical cancer, which can be seen in a woman through a Pap test. Unfortunately, there is currently no screening for HPV-related cancers recommended for men, which makes it incredibly important to make sure your son is protected.
The HPV vaccine can prevent these cancers from ever happening. These are drastically high numbers and the vaccine is the only way to reduce them. Due to the limited and silent symptoms of HPV, for many people it is too late by the time they are diagnosed. Talk to your child’s pediatrician. Have your child take the shot and prevent cancer.
When your child should get it
All boys and girls, ages 11-12 years old, should get the recommended series of HPV vaccine. The series can be started as early as age 9 and if your child did not receive the vaccine when they were young, they still have the opportunity to receive it now. The HPV vaccine has a recommended two doses for people that start the series before they turn 15. If your child begins the series between ages 15 and 26, three doses of the HPV vaccine are needed.
For the HPV vaccine to be most effective, the series should be given prior to exposure to HPV. There is no reason to wait to vaccinate until your child reaches puberty or starts having sex. In fact, it is recommended that preteens should receive all recommended doses of the HPV vaccine series long before they begin any type of sexual activity. Younger people also have a stronger immune response to the HPV vaccine, which is why it is critical to vaccinate your child as soon as recommended.
While there is a level of importance to have your child vaccinated before their first sexual encounter, HPV vaccine is recommended based on age, not sexual experience. This means that even if your child has already had sex, they may not have been exposed to all of the HPV types that the vaccine covers. So even if your child happens to be sexually active, they should still receive the vaccine.