The gynecologic oncology team at Willamette Valley Cancer Institute treats patients with a variety of gynecologic cancers, and many of those cancers have one thing in common: they were likely caused by human papillomavirus.
“About 50 to 75% of my day-to-day office practice is HPV-related,” says Dr. Audrey Garrett.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States and is linked to several types of cancer: cervical, head and neck (including mouth and throat), penile, anal, vaginal and vulvar cancers.
How does HPV cause cancer?
Once high-risk HPV infects cells, it interferes with how those cells communicate with one another, causing infected cells to uncontrollably multiply. These infected cells are usually recognized and controlled by the immune system. Sometimes, however, the infected cells remain and continue to grow, eventually forming an area of precancerous cells that can become cancer, if not treated.
Protecting against HPV with vaccination
Federal guidelines recommend that children get 2 doses of the HPV vaccine before their 15th birthday, ideally between ages 11 and 12. For kids who are not vaccinated until after they turn 15, 3 doses are needed.
“We know that the immune system responds better to vaccines the younger a person is when they are administered. We want kids to receive the HPV vaccine before they have any chance of coming in contact with the virus,” says Dr. Garrett.
In October of 2018, the FDA expanded the approval of Gardasil 9, the human papillomavirus vaccine, to include men and women ages 27 to 45. The CDC estimates that HPV vaccination can prevent more than 90% of HPV-related cancers.
Dr. Garrett serves as an educational speaker for Merck, which manufactures Gardasil 9, the only HPV vaccine currently on the market in the U.S.
“I really try to make sure that everyone I’m speaking with—whether they are patients, whether they’re parents, or whether they are practitioners that have come to a lecture I’m giving—I want them to understand the risk of HPV and how that can be prevented with vaccination,” Dr. Garrett says.
Since the vaccine became available a decade ago, HPV infection rates have dropped dramatically. However, vaccination rates still lag far below rates for other diseases, like meningitis and tetanus—and Dr. Garrett says that’s troublesome.
“This is an incredibly safe vaccine. And for me, as a gynecologic oncologist, it pains me every time a 26-year-old, a 29-year-old, a 32-year-old woman comes to see me, and treating their cancer renders them unable to have children—all because of an HPV-related disease that they could have been vaccinated against.”
Learn more about HPV and questions to ask your health team here.