HPV Causes Multiple Cancers, Though Knowledge on the Connection Is Lagging

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HPV vaccination rates and public knowledge about the connection between the virus and certain cancer types are below what they should be, research found.

Vaccination against the human papillomavirus (HPV) can prevent multiple types of cancer, though vaccination rates, as well as public knowledge about the HPV-cancer connection, are lagging, according to recent research presented at the AACR Annual Meeting 2023.

“Over 90% of HPV-associated cancers could be prevented with the HPV vaccination, yet vaccine uptake remains suboptimal,” the study’s lead author, Eric Adjei Boakye, assistant scientist in the department of health sciences and the department of otolaryngology at Henry Ford Health in Detroit, said in a press release about the findings.

It is estimated that more than half (54.5%) of adolescents in the United States have received the recommended doses of the HPV vaccine, though the government established a goal of an 80% vaccination rate in this population.

READ MORE: HPV-Related Cancer: Why Risk It?

Further, Boakye and his team analyzed data from the Health Information National Trends (HINTS) survey, a nationally representative survey of adults across the U.S. that included more than 2,000 responses during the years 2014, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020.

Survey respondents were asked: “Do you think HPV can cause anal, cervical, oral, penile cancers?” Responses were “yes,” “no,” and “not sure.”

In 2014, 77.6% of respondents reported that they were aware that HPV caused cervical cancer. That number decreased to 70.2% in 2020.

Awareness of the HPV-cancer correlation remained steady but low for the other disease states, according to the researchers.

  • Awareness of the link between HPV and anal cancer was 27.9% in 2014 and 27.4% in 2020
  • Oral cancer awareness was at 31.2% and 29.5% in 2014 and 2020, respectively
  • Penile cancer awareness was 30.3%, then 28.4%

“Given the connections between HPV-associated cancer awareness and HPV vaccination uptake, it is important we increase the population’s awareness of this link, as it may help increase vaccine uptake,” Boakye said.

The first HPV vaccine, Gardasil, was initially approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2006 for females between the ages of 9 and 26.

“The talk about HPV was very female-centric when the vaccine was first approved and recommended. As a result, a lot of people know about HPV-causing cervical cancer, but not the other cancers. Our results suggest that interventions to increase awareness of all HPV-associated cancers would benefit public health,” Boakye said.

Three years later, in 2009, the FDA expanded Gardasil’s approval to include boys and men, because HPV was also associated with anal, oral, and penile cancers. Then, in 2014, an updated version of the vaccine, Gardasil 9, was approved. This newer iteration of Gardasil protected against nine different types of HPV.

Boakye said that patient-provider discussions about the importance of the HPV vaccine is one important step toward increasing vaccination rates. Additionally, clinicians and public health officials need to work together to improve awareness about the importance of the vaccine — including the fact that it can prevent more than 90% of HPV-associated cancer cases.

“Research has shown a high degree of public trust in HPV information when received from healthcare providers; therefore, providers should use every clinical visit as an opportunity to educate patients about the causal link between HPV and HPV-associated cancers, and also about the cancer prevention benefits of the HPV vaccine,” Boakye said.

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