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HPV Vaccine: The Anti-Cervical Cancer Vax

Have you or a loved one ever had an abnormal Pap smear result? If precancerous cells were identified, the cause was almost undoubtedly infection with human papillomavirus (HPV). Almost all cases of cervical cancer arise because of infection with this virus. Yet a vaccine can prevent infection with the strains that most commonly cause cervical cancer.

A vaccine against cancer. It’s true.

For the vaccine to prevent cervical cancer, a woman must have it before HPV infects her. You may find it difficult to look at your daughter, especially a pre-teen daughter, and think of that scenario. But the fact is that even if your daughter avoids all sexual contact until, say, her wedding night, she can still contract HPV from her partner. It happens to be the most common sexually transmitted infection.

About 79 million Americans have an HPV infection, and 14 million people become newly infected every year. Most of the people who are ever sexually active pick up an HPV infection in their lifetime. That means your daughter, even if she does not have sex or become intimate with someone until her wedding night, has a good chance of contracting the virus.

Unless it’s a strain that causes genital warts, HPV usually produces no symptoms, and the infected person doesn’t even know they’ve been infected.

Until the cancer shows up.

And it can show up in more places than the cervix. This virus, you see, favors a certain kind of tissue, one that happens to be present in several parts of you. This tissue, a type of epithelium, is a thin layer of the skin and mucous membranes. It’s available for viral invasion in the cervix, vagina, vulva, anus, penis, and the mouth and pharynx. In fact, HPV is poised to replace tobacco as the major cause of oral cancers in the United States.

The virus can even sometimes pass from mother to child, causing recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, or warts in the throat that must be removed periodically and can sometimes become cancerous.

How does a virus cause cancer? To understand that, you must first understand cancer. You may know that cells reproduce by dividing, and that cancer occurs when cells divide out of control.

Behind most cancers is a malfunction in the molecules that tell cells to stop dividing. These molecules operate in a chain reaction of signaling, like a series of well-timed stoplights along a boulevard. If one starts sending an inappropriate “go” signal or fails to send a “stop” signal, the cell divides, making more cells just like it that also lack the right signals. If your body’s immune system doesn’t halt this inappropriate growth, we call it cancer.

The blueprint for building these “stop” molecules is in your genes, in your DNA sequences. As a virus, HPV also requires a blueprint to make more viruses.

Viruses use the division machinery of the host cell—in you—to achieve reproduction by stealthily inserting their own DNA blueprint into the host DNA.

Sometimes, when it’s finished with the host, a virus leaves a little bit of its DNA behind. If that leftover DNA is in the middle of the blueprint for a “stop” molecule, the cell won’t even notice. It will use the contaminated instructions to build a molecule, one that no longer functions in stopping cell division. The result can be cancer.

Of the 150+ HPV types or strains, about 40 of which pass through sexual contact, two in particular are associated with cancer, types 16 and 18. They are the ones that may persist for years and eventually change the cellular blueprint.

Without a successful viral infection, viral DNA can’t disrupt your DNA. That’s what the HPV vaccine achieves against the two strains responsible for about 70% of cervical cancers.

Women whose precancerous cervical changes are identified in time often still must undergo uncomfortable and sometimes painful procedures to get rid of the precancerous cells. These invasive procedures include cone biopsies that require shots to numb the cervix and removal of a chunk of tissue from it. Cone biopsies carry a risk of causing infertility or miscarriage or preterm delivery.

A vaccine for your daughter could prevent it all.

HPV doesn’t care if your daughter has had sex before. It’s equally oblivious to whether the epithelium it infects is in the cervix or in the mouth or pharynx or in an adult or a child. What it does respond to is antibodies that a body makes in response to the vaccine stimulus.

Even if your daughter’s first and only sex partner passes along one of the cancer-associated strains, if she’s been vaccinated, her antibodies will take that virus out cold. It’s a straightforward prevention against a lifetime of worry—and a premature death.

For more info: Facts about the HPV vaccine from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

HPV, Cervical Cancer, and Pregnancy

For most women, HPV (human papillomavirus) is an infection that comes and goes without sign or symptom.

For some women, it’s a horrible infection that causes cervical cancer.

Treatments for cervical cancer depend on many variables, including what stage of cancer one has.

Some of these treatments attempt to preserve fertility while maintaining high survival rates. Two such treatments are:

  • Conization – removing abnormal areas of the cervix (also known as a cone biopsy)
  • Trachelectomy – removing part or all of the cervix

These treatments may affect the cervix in such a way that it could be more difficult to become pregnant or carry a pregnancy to full term, but they are still considered to be “fertility-preserving therapy” because other procedures are even more likely to affect fertility and pregnancy.

About the only way to prevent HPV infection is to have only one intimate partner during your lifetime, but that partner has to also have only one intimate partner—you. If that sounds unlikely to you, there are vaccines available that can reduce your chances of getting HPV (and therefore cervical cancer)—check with your doctor to see if it’s a good choice for you.

HPV And Cervical Cancer Testing

This is about speculums, Pap tests and pokey sticks.

For those who hate icy speculums and pokey swabs, read on, because those days may be, if not over, at least fewer in one’s lifetime.

An eight-year study of 130,000 women in India has shown that a DNA test beats out all others when it comes to detecting cancer-causing HPV.

Early detection equals life—once undetected cancer reaches the point of women feeling pain, diagnosis can be too late to save the patient.

The bad news is, they still need to use a speculum and pokey swab. The good news is, rather than an annual exam, it may only have to be done every three, five or 10 years. Exactly how often is not yet known.

We don’t see the numbers of cervical cancer deaths in the United States that are seen in some other countries, so we forget how devastating this infection can be. A quarter of a million women in poor and middle-income countries die each year from cervical cancer, most of which is caused by HPV infection. Early detection using the DNA test will save the life of somebody’s mom, wife, sister, grandmother, niece, or aunt.

This is very good news.

Throat Cancer and HPV

When people consider the risks of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, they usually think about cervical cancer or genital warts. Throat cancer doesn’t usually make the radar screen. Maybe it should.

Researchers are finding that HPV is the cause of a growing number of throat cancer cases in the United States. In the February, 2008, U.S. News & World Report, Dr. Bernadine Healy laid it out in plain style:

“It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that this rise in oropharyngeal cancer is linked to changing sexual practices and, in particular, ones that involve bathing the throat with HPV-infected fluid. Increasingly, scientists are implicating HPV-16, and in some cases 18, the same ones that causes cervical cancer. In 2006, a Swedish study of preserved surgical specimens from excised oropharyngeal cancers going back over 30 years identified HPV-16 in less than a quarter of specimens removed in the 1970s. By the 1990s, the proportion was 57 percent. After 2000, it was 68 percent. In 2007, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found HPV-16 in 72 percent of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States. Not proof, but based on correlations with sexual behavior, and an abundance of similar findings both here and around the world over the past few years, there is credible if not alarming medical concern that the infection is being acquired through unprotected oral sex.”

The Boomer generation led the sexual revolution, not realizing that practicing oral sex was still an exchange of body fluid and therefore risky behavior. Men and women in their 40s and 50s are starting to see their peers affected by this cancer.

Well, now we know, and we can take steps to stop infection in ourselves and the younger generations. Stop the infection, stop the cancer.

Check with your healthcare provider to see what methods of prevention will work best for you – and your loved ones.


Information is the power
parents have over disease.