GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Human papillomavirus, or HPV, infects 13 million people every year. While most infections will resolve on their own, 36,000 cases of cancer develop because of HPV infection.
A vaccine was introduced more than 15 years ago. Since then, research has shown HPV infections that cause most cancers are down 88% in teen girls. The CDC recommends boys and girls be vaccinated between the ages of 11 and 12 years old. Still, there are myths associated with the infection and vaccine.
Myth: HPV is uncommon.
Dr. Martha Walsh, senior medical director and associate chief medical officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan said it’s an extremely common infection.
“Actually, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection,” she said.
Walsh said 42 million people living in the U.S. today have the HPV virus and show no symptoms. She reminds men and women to have timely and appropriate screenings for HPV-related cancers.
Myth: HPV only causes cervical cancer in women.
Dr. Walsh said this myth is perpetuated by the wide knowledge that HPV is associated with cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancer.
“The reality is it can cause other types of cancers in both sexes, men and women. Those include oropharyngeal cancer, which is a mouth and throat type of cancer, and also anal cancer. So both men and women can be exposed to HPV and develop those types of cancer,” said Walsh.
Walsh notes oropharyngeal cancer is on the rise. The reason people used to get that disease is from smoking. As smoking decreases, HPV-related mouth and throat cancers are increasing.
Myth: The HPV vaccine causes fertility issues.
Walsh said in the U.S. 138 million doses of the HPV vaccine have been given. She said science has followed adverse effects of the vaccine and there has been no fertility issues reported.
“When women develop cervical cancer or pre-cancers they can develop from HPV, the treatments for pre-cancer and cancer actually can cause issues with fertility and the ability to carry a pregnancy to term,” Walsh said.
Myth: Only people who are sexually active will need the HPV vaccine.
Dr. Walsh said the HPV vaccine is most effective when it’s been given before the patient is exposed to HPV. She said some parents have a hard time vaccinating their young child from something that is sexually transmitted.
“By vaccinating them as an 11 or 12-year-old, they’re really protecting them as an adult from becoming infected with HPV and preventing cancers associated with HPV,” said Walsh.
Myth: The HPV vaccine only prevents genital warts.
Dr. Walsh said the HPV vaccine does help prevent genital warts, but it also protects against the 7 types of the virus that are most likely to cause different types of cancer.
“We really think of the HPV vaccine and cancer prevention,” Walsh said.