HPV, or Human Papillomavirus, is generally known for causing cervical cancer (although different strains can also cause genital warts, plantars warts, and similar). Cervical cancer, when Pap smears are routinely performed, is pretty easy to catch and treat in most cases. What isn’t tested for is throat, tongue, and tonsil cancer—the first sign of which is often only swollen lymph nodes, which rounds of testing have to follow before a diagnosis can be made.
Subsequently, there’s been a surge of HPV cancers. Not just in the throat, but in genital and anal tissue as well. The surge is being attributed to changes in sexual practice over the last few decades.
Who’s affected? HPV takes decades to become cancer, and usually affects those who are older, and whose immune systems are weaker, so most cases are happening in patients in their 50s or 60s. White and Asian populations are also seeing a slightly larger surge in HPV cancer cases.
HPV is a highly prevalent virus; almost everyone will be exposed to it during their lifetimes, and the majority of those exposed will have a strong enough immune system to defeat it without ever having to think about it.
Although the vaccine is recommended for all middle school age students, those who need it most are those who aren’t receiving regular preventative care like Pap smears (so mostly those who are economically disadvantaged). But, if testing proves that the HPV vaccine prevents cancers other than cervical, which have no routine testing, it may strengthen the argument that everyone should get the HPV vaccine.
There are two problems, however, with the vaccine:
The first is that, if you read the fine print, it recommends testing to make sure there isn’t already an active HPV strain or immunity to the strains the vaccine prevents—presence of either raises the risk of side-effects dramatically. Doctors do not offer routine testing for this, which leads to the second problem.
The vaccine is recommended for 10-12 year olds, since they are less likely to have come into contact with HPV, BUT, the vaccine does not confer lifelong immunity. It only lasts 5-6 years (depending on which brand), so those vaccinated will possibly not have immunity to the virus in their 20s, when they are most likely to be sexually active and come into contact with the disease (HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, which sex offers the best chance of, though it certainly isn’t the only way to have skin-to-skin contact, and is thus not the only way to transmit HPV!). Despite this, they don’t recommend a booster.
Does the increased risk of throat cancer make the HPV vaccine worthwhile?