TMH Living Well: HPV a major player in cervical and other cancers

When thinking about protecting themselves against cervical cancer, most women — rightly so — think of the Pap test. Since its inception, the Pap test has caught cervical cancer early and saved many women’s lives.

Yet, there is another player that contributes to cervical cancer risk — HPV, or the human papillomavirus. It’s linked to about 70 percent of all cervical cancers.

More than half of all sexually active men and women will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives. The HPV vaccine offers protection, as does practicing safe sex.

“Worldwide, there are 500,000 cases of cervical cancers diagnosed every year. Cervical cancer is the third most common cancer,” said Dr. Kelly Follett, pediatrician with TMH Medical Clinic.

HPV is a nasty set of viruses — about 150 to be exact. At least 12 are labeled high risk, having serious consequences. The virus is passed by direct skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity.

“Low-risk forms of HPV do not cause cancer but can cause warts on or around the genitals or anus. High-risk forms of HPV can cause cancer. Types 16 and 18 are responsible for a majority of cervical cancer cases,” said Dr. Kristie Yarmer, pediatrician with TMH Medical Clinic.

The body’s immune system usually fights off the infection — often without any symptoms. Yet, the body sometimes harbors the virus for years, and it develops into cancer.

“While the body usually fights off more mild forms of HPV, its ability to do so decreases with high-risk forms,” Follett said.

The HPV vaccine can prevent many cancers and most genital warts. While younger adults might get the vaccine, it’s most effective when given at a young age. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends routine HPV vaccination in males and females at 11 or 12 years old.

“The vaccine is more effective before becoming sexually active,” Yarmer said.

It’s important to get vaccinated before the first sexual encounter occurs. The HPV vaccine was introduced in 2006 for girls and 2012 for boys — not only does getting boys vaccinated protect girls, it also protects boys from serious health consequences.

“We’ve discovered that boys are just as susceptible to genital warts from HPV as girls, and they can get cancer as well,” Yarmer said. According to the AAP, men with high-risk HPV can suffer from cancers of the mouth, pharynx, anus and penis.

The vaccine is given in a three-dose series. It has been deemed safe with few side effects. Most insurance companies cover the cost of the vaccination.

“Research has shown that the body responds best if the vaccine is given between the ages of 9 and 15 years old. The vaccine has been studied and shown to be effective up to the age of 26, but has little efficacy very much older than that,” Follett said.

Both pediatricians recommend that parents of teens consider the HPV vaccine. Remember, the vaccine is only effective before the virus is introduced into the body. Getting it now means you may be doing your child a huge favor in the future.

Both Dr. Yarmer and Dr. Follett are accepting new patients. Call TMH Medical Clinic at 970-826-2480 to schedule an appointment.

This weekly article with tips on living well is sponsored by The Memorial Hospital at Craig – improving the quality of life for the communities we serve through patient-centered healthcare and service excellence.

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