Most Americans don’t know that human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause multiple types of cancer beyond cervical cancer, according to a new survey from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The survey, which is being presented at a conference by the American Association for Cancer Research, showed that in 2020 fewer than 30% of people understood that HPV can lead to penile, anal, or oral cancers.
The sexually transmitted infection (STI) is incredibly common—nearly everyone will get it at some point in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—and is spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. In fact, millions of Americans are infected with HPV annually. Nine times out of 10, the virus goes away on its own within two years of infection, but sometimes it lingers. HPV is responsible for an estimated 36,000 cancer cases in the US each year, according to the CDC. The virus is thought to be responsible for more than 90% of anal and cervical cancers; more than 60% of penile cancers; and about 70% of vaginal and vulvar cancers, according to the CDC.
What’s worrisome is that the survey shows awareness of HPV-related cancers had dropped across the board since participants were asked the same questions in 2014. There was a particularly dramatic change in the response to the cervical cancer question: In 2014, 77.6% of people said they knew HPV could cause cervical cancer; that percentage dropped to 70.2% in 2020.
The reason that awareness is so key is that we have a vaccine that offers great protection from HPV, and it’s recommended for everyone from the ages of 11 or 12 to age 26 (with some exceptions if people up to age 45 weren’t adequately vaccinated during that window). In a press release, lead survey author Eric Adjei Boakye, PhD, said, “Over 90% of HPV-associated cancers could be prevented with the HPV vaccination, yet vaccine uptake remains suboptimal.”
Research has shown that the HPV vaccine can go a long way in protecting people with cervixes, in particular: A study published in 2021 in The Lancet found that the vaccine prevented nearly 450 cervical cancer cases and 17,325 cases of cervical precancerous cells, which can develop into cancer if left untreated, in the UK alone from 2006 to 2021, as SELF previously reported. Now experts are spreading the word that all young people need to get the shot (more than 40% of HPV-associated cancers develop in men, according to research published last year in JAMA Network Open).
Moving forward, public health institutions need to stress that the vaccine can protect everyone, not just certain people, Dr. Adjei Boakye explained: “The talk about HPV was very female-centric when the vaccine was first approved,” he said. “Our results suggest that interventions to increase awareness of all HPV-associated cancers would benefit public health.”
Until then, we have to look out for ourselves and each other. That means using barrier methods, like condoms or diaphragms, during sex, getting regularly tested for STIs, and staying up to date on your annual physicals or ob-gyn visits so you can receive screening tests if it makes sense for you.