HPV vaccines can help prevent cancer later in life

HPV vaccines can help prevent cancer later in life

HPV, or human papillomavirus, is an infection that is commonly associated with sexually transmitted diseases. But HPV is also associated with six different cancers, one of which includes head and neck cancer.

“Historically, most head and neck cancers have been primarily caused by cigarette or alcohol use,” says Dr. Nirav Thakkar, a head and neck surgeon at Advocate Health Care. “But what has shifted and what we’ve learned more recently is that HPV can cause head and neck cancer. It’s the most common head and neck cancer that’s being diagnosed nowadays.”

While some people infected with HPV may not have severe or more progressed symptoms at the time of diagnosis, it can be years after an initial HPV infection before cancer develops.

“Part of the physiology or understanding of this is that people are inoculated in their teens or twenties and then over time it causes a chronic inflammatory change. It can actually take up to 20 to 30 years after inoculation for a head and neck cancer to pop up,” Dr. Thakkar says.

This is why the American Cancer Society recommends that kids get the HPV vaccine, which is a series of three shots, between the ages of nine and 12. However, some parents are still hesitant about having their children vaccinated.

“One of the anxieties I think parents have over the HPV vaccine is they are concerned it will promote promiscuity because of the protection provided from one virus, but that hasn’t shown to be true. Some of that just comes down to good counseling from the providers giving the vaccine and also the parents,” says Dr. Thakkar.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), since HPV vaccination was first recommended in 2006, types of HPV infections that cause most HPV cancers and genital warts have dropped 88% among teen girls and 81% among young adult women.

The reason the vaccine is recommended for adolescents rather than for people of all ages is because the vaccine works best when exposure to HPV has not yet happened. Most adults are exposed to HPV at some point in their lifetime, so early vaccination is key. The CDC says vaccination may still be possible after the recommended timeframe, but adds that teens and young adults through age 26 who are not already vaccinated should get the HPV vaccine as soon as possible.

The bottom line? Getting vaccinated against HPV is the best preventive measure against certain head and neck cancers.

“The benefit of the vaccine is so great because you can prevent cancer in the long run, and it’s not the only cancer it can help prevent. There are other HPV-related cancers out there,” Dr. Thakkar says.

Talk to your child’s pediatrician to learn more about vaccination against HPV. Need a pediatrician? Find one: Illinois or Wisconsin. 

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About the Author

Lee Batsakis
Lee Batsakis

Lee Batsakis, health enews contributor, is a public affairs coordinator with Advocate Children’s Hospital. She graduated from Western Michigan University with a degree in public relations and has worked in health care since 2013. Outside of work, she enjoys reading, exercising, and spending time with her fiancé and two dogs.