Thanks to the vaccine, HPV-related cancer may be ‘virtually eliminated’ in the US

The American Cancer Society says the HPV vaccine has the potential to “virtually eliminate cervical cancer” in America, according to its latest report on cancer in America. The report showed a 65% drop in cervical cancer among women ages 20-24 from 2012 to 2019.

The report coincides with other earlier studies that show reduced rates of HPV transmission and HPV-related cancers in people who have been vaccinated.

“The large drop in cervical cancer incidence is extremely exciting because this is the first group of women to receive the HPV vaccine, and it probably foreshadows steep reductions in other HPV-associated cancers,” said Rebecca Siegel, senior scientific director, surveillance research at the American Cancer Society, in a statement on the 2023 statistics.

The HPV vaccine, approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2006, provides protection from HPV-16 and HPV-18, the strains associated with most cancers. Not only has the vaccine reduced cervical cancer rates, but it has also reduced rates of HPV infections in sexually active females aged 14 to 24.

From 2008 to 2018, HPV infection rates for vaccinated females fell 90% compared to a 74% reduction in unvaccinated females, according to data from National Health Examination Survey. The ACS study credits herd immunity with the 74% reduction in the unvaccinated.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease, with the CDC estimating most sexually active people will have the virus at some point in their lives. The body takes care of most (9 out of 10) HPV infections within two years, but some strains of HPV can cause cancer of the genitals, anus, mouth and throat in both men and women.

While the disease is more deadly for Black Americas, white men and women are being more commonly diagnosed with late-stage HPV related cancers. Black women are more likely to die from the cervical cancer than any other ethnic group, the study said. Cancer diagnosis is more common in white women, but Black women are 12% more likely to die from the disease compared to white women.

Decreasing the stigma around HPV is a key aspect of reducing HPV transmission and early detection of HPV-related cancers, said Fred Wyand, director of communication for the American Sexual Health Association.

“I often say that being diagnosed with HPV means you’re normal. Just starting conversations about HPV and addressing the stigma around it is a big factor in prevention,” Wyand said.

“HPV affects everybody, but the outcomes aren’t always the same. These poor health outcomes are largely related to access to care, so I would encourage everyone to talk to their doctor about HPV screening and HPV vaccine for both themselves and their children and grandchildren.

Rates of late-state HPV-related cancers have increased in both white men and women, especially white women in the South, according to two 2022 studies on HPV-related throat cancer and cervical cancer.

A 2022 Rutgers study found rates of late-stage HPV-related throat cancer diagnoses were increasing in White men, and Black and Hispanic men are dying from HPV-related throat cancer at higher rates than their white counterparts. HPV—not smoking or tobacco use—is now the leading cause of head, neck and throat cancers in men.

The Rutgers study found men were five times as likely to test positive for HPV compared to women, and that new HPV-related head and neck cancer diagnoses now outnumber new cervical cancer diagnoses in America.

Experts have linked abstinence-only sex education with increased cervical cancer mortality rates, especially in southern states. Doctors in southern states like Alabama are also concerned about the increase in HPV-related head and neck cancers in men, which is twice as common in men than women.

People under 45 are eligible for the vaccine, even if they are sexually active and have already been exposed to HPV. The vaccine still offers protection for people who have already been exposed to HPV.

White Americans and HPV

While the 2023 ACS study found overall cervical cancer rates in young women have declined, the study also found the rate declined slower for white women. Between 2012 and 2019 cervical cancer rates for women 20-24 years old decreased by 64% for white women, compared to 69% and 70% for Black and Hispanic women, respectively.

A 2022 study by the UCLA Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology found cases of late-stage cervical cancer were increasing among southern white women between the ages of 40 and 44 more than any other demographic group.

“In the coming years, these differences will become apparent in incidence rates for cervical and other HPV-associated cancers. Differences in the initiatives to improve health, such as Medicaid expansion, may also contribute to future geographic disparities,” ACS officials said in a statement on the 2023 cancer statistics.

Anna Beahm

Anna Beahm |

I report on the intersection of religion and sexuality in America. Follow me on Twitter @_AnnaBeahm

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