Breaking News: 1 Out of 5 Adults Carry HPV Strain That May Cause Cancer

April 17, 2017

Almost half of men (45 percent) and 40 percent of women in the United States have been infected with some strain of the human papillomavirus (HPV), according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics. One surprising finding: The report revealed that a quarter of American men have types of HPV that can cause cancer; among women, the rate is 20 percent.

HPV is spread through oral, anal and vaginal intercourse. Often the infection goes away on its own, but in a growing number of cases, it can lead to cancer of the back of the throat and cancer of the anus, types that often aren’t detected until later stages when they’re more difficult to treat.

An important takeaway from this report, however, is that this study didn’t measure the rate of HPV-related cancers, but only the prevalence of HPV among adults in the United States, says Dr. Aaron Ermel, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine and infectious disease specialist at Indiana University Health. In other words, although we’re learning more about HPV-related disease risks, how likely those cancer-causing strains will result in actual cancers remains to be seen.

“Finding the right methods of detection has been the challenge,” says Dr. Ermel. “We don’t have great predictive models; just because we can detect HPV doesn’t mean we can tell for sure who will end up with cancer and who won’t.”

Although the cancer connection isn’t certain, HPV numbers nevertheless are high: The CDC estimates that 80 million people have HPV and 31,000 men and women a year are diagnosed with HPV-related cancers. Cervical cancer accounts for 1 out of 3 HPV-related cancers.

A study published last year found that HPV-related cancers had increased 17 percent and that men are particularly vulnerable to mouth, tongue and throat cancers related to HPV infection. Another study released earlier in 2016 concluded that HPV infection raises head cancer risk sevenfold and that 70 percent of all head and neck cancers are HPV-related.

In addition, the CDC says the infection rates in their report might be conservative. The organization notes that previously, researchers looked at fewer strains of HPV, and only in teen girls and women to determine its prevalence, which are two reasons the rate of high-risk HPV infection is higher than earlier data indicated. And these latest figures don’t include high-risk populations such as the incarcerated and the homeless, so the number of infections might be even higher.

The best way to curb the spread of HPV is to vaccinate kids at 11 or 12 years old, the CDC recommends. Men and women 26 or younger can get one of three vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration, which have been shown to be effective and have excellent safety records, according to the CDC. The organization published a study in 2016 concluding that HPV infection rates had dropped significantly among young women since 2006, when it was first recommended that teen girls be vaccinated.

“We know from previous research that if it’s given to a large number of women, we see a gradual decline,” Dr. Ermel says.

Although some parents seem to have lingering concerns about whether vaccinating junior high schoolers against a sexually transmitted disease might encourage earlier sexual experimentation, research has shown the opposite to be the case, Dr. Ermel says.

“Most studies that actually looked at behaviors found no difference in sexual behavior between those who got the vaccine and those who didn’t,” he says. “In fact, some who get the vaccine might have a reduction in the number of sexual partners, partly because they’re educated about what HPV is and what its risks are.”

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