Over the past year, we have been learning a lot about viruses, the importance of taking preventive steps to curb their spread and associated deaths, and about vaccines designed to build immunity. This first 2021 edition of The C Word spotlights the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), a very common virus that spreads primarily through skin-to-skin contact such as sexual contact. There are more than 150 types or “strains” of HPV. The virus is classified as “low-risk” HPV or “high-risk” HPV. Among 14 types of high-risk HPV, normal cells can convert into precancerous lesions or cancer.1 Of these, HPV-16 and HPV-18, are leading causes of HPV-associated cancers.

About 45,300 new cases of HPV-associated cancers occurred each year from 2013-2017 (CDC).2 More than 25,400 females and 19,925 males were affected. Of the five HPV-associated cancers in females, most pertain to the reproductive organs (cervix, vulva, and vagina). Almost one-half (47.8%) affect the cervix, as shown in the pie chart. Both genders had oropharynx (back of the throat, base of the tongue and the tonsil region) and anal cancers in common, but in varying amounts. Among three HPV-linked cancers in males (oropharynx, anus and penis), the oropharynx was most affected (81.5%).

Cervical Cancer in Women

January is Cervical Cancer Awareness month. HPV accounts for 91% of cervical cancers, with HPV-16 and HPV-18 the primary causes.2 This cancer is usually diagnosed at younger ages, compared to other HPV-related cancers. The median age of diagnosis is 49 years. About 13,800 new cases of invasive cervical cancer and 4,290 cervical cancer deaths were expected in the U.S. in 2020.3Fortunately, cervical cancer screening such as the use of the Pap test helps detect cancer early and improves treatment outcomes and survivorship. The Pap test, the HPV test, and HPV vaccines are contributing to the downward trend in cervical cancer cases and deaths across the country.

Safe, Effective HPV Vaccine

HPV vaccines are designed to prevent lasting infections. They can also reduce precancerous lesions. The HPV vaccine is recommended for boys and girls from ages 9 to 26, before they become sexually active. Gardasil 9, an HPV vaccine, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for everyone between the ages of 9- 45 years. Before getting the HPV vaccine, any risks and benefits should be discussed with a healthcare provider.1

HPV Vaccine Research at AU

Augusta University Health currently conducts HPV vaccine research. The 3.5 year, double-blind study aims to determine if the HPV 9-valent vaccine is effective in preventing oral-related HPV infections. The study is open to men, 20-45 years of age who have not already received an HPV vaccine, who have no history of an HPV-related anal lesion or HPV-related head and neck cancer, and who have had at least one sexual partner during their life. For information about the study, including opportunities to participate, and possible risks and benefits of participating, call the Clinical Research Team at 706-721-2535.