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Prevention is the Best Medicine When It Comes to HPV

Although there are advances in treating cancers linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV), the best medicine is to prevent the disease in the first place.

BY Charlotte Huff
PUBLISHED June 16, 2012

Although there are advances in treating cancers linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV), the best medicine is to prevent the disease in the first place.

Currently there are two vaccines that will protect against the two most common strains of HPV that cause cancer (types 16 and 18).

Certain strains of HPV are spread during sexual contact, and genital HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world. It is so ubiquitous that the National Cancer Institute estimates that the majority of sexually active men and women will have an HPV infection at some point in their lives. About 90 percent of the time, the virus disappears on its own within two years, and a person often doesn’t have symptoms. A new study has shown that 

African-American women do not clear the disease as quickly as other ethnic groups.

But in some cases—and it still isn’t understood why—the virus overcomes immunity, and the viral proteins expressed by some cancer-causing strains of HPV causes cells to become abnormal. Sometimes this can lead to cancer. The vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, are only effective if given before an infection occurs. For this reason, doctors recommend that girls receive the shots at age 11 or 12, before they become sexually active. Pediatricians also recommend that boys receive a Gardasil vaccination around age 11 or 12 to protect themselves against later developing genital, anal or oral cancer.

Although the two vaccines were originally developed and approved to prevent cervical cancer, recent studies have shown that they can also protect against HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer.

Additional reporting provided by Laura Beil.

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