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Many people don’t realize how many types of cancer can be caused by HPV. Getty Images
  • While there’s an HPV vaccine, many people eligible haven’t gotten the shot.
  • Researchers point out that the HPV vaccine can help prevent the virus that can cause a variety of cancers including anal, penile, and oral cancer.
  • More than 70 percent of people didn’t know that HPV could cause these types of cancer.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a known cause of multiple forms of cancer. However, many Americans aren’t aware or taking appropriate steps to protect themselves.

In a new research letter published this week in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers found that many Americans are uninformed about the HPV infection, the HPV vaccine, and the relationship between HPV and certain forms of cancer, including penile, anal, and oral.

This lack of knowledge likely means that many are unknowingly increasing their risk of cancer despite an available and easily accessible vaccine.

Researchers looked at a national sample of more than 6,000 people (more than half women) to gauge their knowledge about HPV.

Their findings indicate that there’s an immediate need to better inform the public about the disease as a cause of cancer.

Among their findings:

  • HPV vaccination coverage remains far below the current goal set for 2020 of 80 percent (currently 44.3 percent for boys and 53.1 percent for girls).
  • Across all age groups, 70 percent of U.S. adults didn’t know that HPV causes oral, anal, and penile cancers.
  • Men are disproportionately less knowledgeable about HPV, the HPV vaccine, and HPV-related cancers than women.
  • An overwhelming number of older individuals (ages 46 and older) are not knowledgeable about HPV, the HPV vaccine, and HPV-related cancers.
  • Men are less likely to be vaccinated against HPV than women.

The knowledge gap between men and women is one of the most substantial parts of the research. It demonstrates that while prior public awareness campaigns about HPV vaccination toward women have been effective, more work needs to be done to encourage men to also undergo vaccination.

The HPV vaccine, sold under the trade names Gardasil and Cervarix, was first approved by the FDA in 2006.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) includes the vaccine on its immunization schedule and recognizes the HPV vaccine as “very safe and effective.”

Historically, the HPV vaccine was predominantly targeted at women due to the association between HPV and cervical cancer.

According to the National Cancer Institute, “virtually all cervical cancers are caused by HPV.” But with increasing awareness of HPV’s role in other cancers, a shift is needed to address individuals who may be at risk.

“Men know less about the cancers that are common in men. For example, penile cancer. It only occurs among men, but generally more women than men know that HPV causes penile cancer,” said Ashish A. Deshmukh, PhD, MPH, an author of the study and assistant professor in the department of management, policy, and community health at UF Health School of Public Health.

According to the National Cancer Institute, HPV causes:

But many, particularly men, remain unaware of this association.

“The burden of HPV-associated cancers is now moving toward anal cancer, oropharyngeal cancer, and these non-cervical HPV-associated cancers. Yet we know less that HPV causes these cancers,” Dr. Deshmukh said.

He noted that while both incidents and deaths associated with cervical cancer have been declining for many years, other forms including anal and penile cancer have been increasing.

The study’s findings on the lack of public awareness on HPV, vaccination, and cancer aren’t surprising, Dr. David Fagan, vice chair of pediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York, told Healthline.

“When the HPV vaccine was first licensed, they really marketed it toward preventing genital warts and they did not market the vaccine that was going to prevent cancer,” Fagan said. “Once they started focusing on HPV as the virus that causes cervical cancer and these other cancers, we started to see more acceptance of the vaccine.”

The question posed by the new research is how to go about better informing the public — and parents in particular — about the risks posed by HPV-associated cancers and when to get vaccinated.

Parents need to become more knowledgeable. As the study points out: “The lack of HPV knowledge among adults aged 27 to 45, and 46 years and older, is concerning given that adults in these age groups are (or will likely be) the parents responsible for making HPV vaccination decisions for their children.”

Today the CDC recommends that children receive the HPV vaccine over 2 doses between the ages of 11 and 12.

It’s further recommended that everyone up through age 26 receive it. Adults ages 27 through 45 are now approved to get the vaccine, but it will likely offer less benefit.

Both Deshmukh and Fagan said that increasing communication between parents, family members, and healthcare providers is paramount for increasing knowledge about HPV, and improving vaccination rates.

“Have this discussion early. You can actually immunize children as early as age 9 with the HPV vaccine, however most providers begin at age 11. But the conversation should not begin at age 11. The conversation needs to begin a year or two years before that,” Fagan said.