HPV can cause six types of cancers – but it’s preventable

HPV can cause six types of cancers – but it’s preventable

By Dr. Dustin Costescu, gynecologist

You may have heard about the human papillomavirus (HPV) in the media or from friends. It’s the most common sexually transmitted infection. It’s also the cause of nearly all cases of cervical cancer, and is known to cause five other cancers – anal, vaginal, vulvar, penile, and head and neck. It can also cause genital warts.

More than 75% of men and women are infected at some point in their lives, and most will show no symptoms. Others can go on to develop genital warts, and some will develop pre-cancer or even cancer. There are more than 100 types of HPV, and some carry a higher risk for cancer than others. The good news; HPV is preventable.

One of the most promising, and yet frustrating, aspects of HPV-related cancers is that they are among the only cancers that are highly-preventable.

Since it’s a sexually transmitted infection, practicing safe sex and limiting your number of sexual partners are ways to prevent HPV. Those practices, combined with the HPV vaccine, provide the greatest protection. The vaccine protects against the most common types of HPV, including the two that cause the greatest risk of cancer. Since the vaccine can’t protect against all types of HPV, it is still important for women to get regular Pap tests to screen for cervical cancer.

The vaccine was first introduced in 2006 and is recommended for both females and males age 9 to 26 since anyone can get HPV and HPV-related cancers. Since 2006, the vaccine has resulted in a reduction in HPV causing cancers as well as genital warts.

The vaccine is proven to be very safe and doesn’t increase a young person’s likelihood of taking sexual risks. We aim to vaccinate girls and boys early, before their sexual début, as that’s when the vaccine is most effective. Due to this, the vaccine is available through the school immunization program to all grade 7 students in Ontario. Click here for more information on Ontario’s HPV immunization program.

If you were not vaccinated in school but would like to be, please talk to your doctor or pharmacist.

One of the most promising, and yet frustrating, aspects of HPV-related cancers is that they are among the only cancers that are highly-preventable. Since we have the tools to protect ourselves, we should use them.