HPV Fact Checker: July 21, 2013

Chances are if you’ve even heard of HPV, the Human Papilloma Virus or the vaccine that prevents it. It’s been in relation to females and cervical cancer.

“HPV: there are 140 different types. Some are low risk, some are high risk. The high risk types are known to cause almost all cervical cancer,” says Dr. Kevin Fleishman, ob-gyn on Lee Memorial Health System’s medical staff.

A sexually transmitted disease, the virus is widespread.

“It’s thought that 80% of all sexually active patients have been exposed to high risk HPV at some time in their life. In young, healthy women, HPV infection lasts about a year or two,” says Fleishman.

Most strains of HPV go completely undetected and clear up on their own. But the risk goes well beyond female cancers. HPV is now responsible for half of all the oral cancers. And men are the more likely victims.

“Fifteen to eighteen years ago, probably 90-95% of my new cancer patients were smokers and their cancers were most of the time caused by the smoking. But now about 45% are non-smokers, and the majority of those are caused by HPV,” says Dr. Phillip Andrews, otolaryngologist on Lee Memorial Health System’s medical staff.

In 2012 it was reported that 10% of men and 4% of women in the U.S. had an oral HPV infection. Only a fraction developed cancer.

“And these are largely cancers of the tonsils or the base of the tongue way back in the back of the throat,” says Dr. Andrews.

The vaccine recommended for pre-sexually active boys and girls protects against the specific HPV strains responsible for cervical and oral cancers. It’s hoped this attention on HPV will help people spread the word and not the virus.