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Alarming New Data Reveals Majority of Americans Unaware of Link Between HPV and Cancers: Implications for Vaccination and Cancer Prevention Efforts

According to recent survey data presented at the annual meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research, a large majority of Americans lack awareness about the link between Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and several types of cancer. Between 2014 and 2020, researchers found that most people were unaware of the fact that HPV infection can cause anal, oral, and penile cancers, in addition to cervical cancer, which is a widely recognized HPV-related cancer. The awareness level for cervical cancer has declined from 77% to 70% over the seven-year period, while awareness levels for the other three HPV-related cancers – anal, oral, and penile – are much lower, and they also declined further over the same period. Only about 27.4% of people knew that HPV causes anal cancer, 28.4% knew that it causes penile cancer, and 29.5% knew that it causes oral cancer.

Dr. Eric Adjei Boakye, assistant scientist at the Department of Public Health Sciences at Henry Ford Health and lead author of the study, expressed his concern that the low levels of awareness could hamper adolescent HPV vaccination efforts, which are already lagging. Adjei Boakye said, “The HPV vaccine has been around for a long time and there’s been a lot of talk about it. So no one was expecting that awareness would be decreasing.”

HPV is a sexually transmitted infection, and most HPV infections are low-risk and are fought off by the body. However, for others, the HPV infection can persist and develop into a severe strain of the virus, which has the potential to cause cancer. Yasmin Lyons, DO, assistant professor of gynecologic oncology at the Mays Cancer Center at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, said, “HPV first starts off causing precancerous changes in cells, and then over time if somebody’s immune system can’t clear the HPV virus on their own, then eventually it can cause cancerous changes in those cells.”

HPV can cause several types of cancers, including cervical, anal, penile, vaginal, rectal, vulval, and oropharyngeal (back of the throat) cancer. The virus is responsible for about 37,300 cases of these cancers annually. The survey examined just four types of cancer to determine Americans’ awareness of the link between HPV and cancer.

The HPV vaccine has been recommended since 2006, primarily for adolescents. As of 2020, 75% of adolescents had received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 54% of adolescents had received all recommended doses. However, the U.S. has not yet reached its target vaccination rate for HPV. Adjei Boakye noted that doctors recommending the vaccine is the number one reason people get vaccinated, followed by knowledge of the vaccine’s benefits. Therefore, if people do not understand how dangerous HPV can be, and the associated risks, they may not be motivated to get themselves or their children vaccinated.

Dr. Lyons added that awareness is essential because the virus is asymptomatic in many cases. She also pointed out that the decline in knowledge is a concern because people may be less motivated to undergo regular screenings, such as pap smears for cervical cancer, if they do not know about the link between HPV and cancer. Rates of new cases of cervical cancer have decreased since 1992, while anal and oral cavity and pharynx cancers are both increasing in incidence.

In conclusion, the lack of awareness about the link between HPV and cancer among the majority of Americans is a concern, as it could negatively affect HPV vaccination efforts, which are already lagging. Health experts recommend that people get vaccinated and regularly screened, as these measures can help prevent HPV-related cancers.