Founder and CEO, Prevent Cancer Foundation
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a very common virus; nearly 80 million people (about one in four) are currently infected in the United States. It is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get one of the many types of the virus at some point.
HPV is linked to almost all cervical cancer diagnoses. The virus is also linked to at least five other types of cancer including vulvar, vaginal, penile, and anal cancers, as well as oropharyngeal cancer, a cancer of the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils. While many cases of HPV clear on their own, some develop into cancer — which can happen many years after becoming infected. It is impossible to know who will get cancer from HPV.
“When I was asked if I wanted to be screened for HPV, I had never heard of the virus before. A week later I got the call that I was positive for a strain of HPV that could cause cancer,” said Kara Million, a cervical cancer survivor. “A few years later, after a routine screening, my doctor called again. I had cervical cancer.”
Fortunately, a vaccine exists to protect against HPV-related cancers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends all boys and girls 11-12 years old get two doses of the HPV vaccine to protect against cancers caused by HPV. The second dose should be given six to 12 months after the first dose. Teens and young adults who start the series later, at age 15 or older, will need three doses of the vaccine.
“Thankfully, my children will not endure my same fate. They have been vaccinated against developing any HPV-related cancers,” Million said. “It is a gift that I can give them that will protect them for a lifetime.”
The HPV vaccine offers the best protection to girls and boys who complete the series and have time to develop an immune response before they become sexually active.
The HPV vaccine is also available for young women and men through age 26. It is important that women who have been vaccinated continue to have regular cervical cancer screenings.
If your health insurance does not cover the cost of the HPV vaccine, there are assistance programs available. Most HPV vaccines are covered by the Vaccines for Children (VFC) Program, a federally funded program that provides vaccines to children (age 18 or younger) whose parents or guardians are unable to afford them. Some HPV manufacturers also offer patient assistance programs to cover vaccine costs for adults ages 19-26.
Regardless of whether you are at increased risk or average risk for HPV infection, all young men and women of recommended age need to be vaccinated. Talk to your health care provider about getting vaccinated or visit thinkaboutthelink.org to learn more about the link between certain viruses and cancer.