Highly contagious, the human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection. An estimated three-quarters of sexually active women are thought to catch HPV at some point in their life. Not actually a single strain, there are more than 100 types of HPV, though some are more ‘high risk’ than others.
Vaccines against the virus have been available for a while, but a recent study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute suggests that if the newest HPV vaccine, called 9-valent, was given to all girls aged between 11 and 12, then it could prevent up to 80% of all cervical cancers in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only around a third of girls get the three recommended doses of HPV vaccine.
The more high-risk versions of the virus—which affect the skin and moist membranes of the body, such as in the cervix, vagina, anus, and throat—are implicated in causing many types of cancers that affect these regions. It’s thought they contribute to around 600,000 cases of cancer and 250,000 premature deaths worldwide. Clearly, these strains are a major health concern.
The 9-valent vaccine is one of two approved vaccines that target the most risky types of HPV. This new version, as well as protecting against cervical cancer, also helps protect against nine other types of cancer. It’s estimated that it could also potentially increase protection from HPV-related cancer of the vulva, vagina, and anus to between 63 and 87%.
“This is the first comprehensive study of its kind and shows the potential to not only reduce the global cancer burden, but guide clinical decision-making with regard to childhood vaccinations,” said Marc T. Goodman, senior author of the study and director of Cancer Prevention and Genetics at the Cedars-Sinai Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute.
With child vaccination rates for many other diseases ranging between 80 and 90%, it seems odd that the rate for HPV is so low. Some think that it could be because doctors find it awkward or uneasy talking to parents about a vaccine for their children that has an implication of sexual activity. However, if the benefits of such a chat results in a reduction of cervical cancer cases by 80%, perhaps it’s a talk we should be encouraging.