STD Awareness: Can the HPV Vaccine Prevent Head-and-Neck Cancer?

Photo: Heather Hazzan, Self Magazine

The HPV vaccine Gardasil protects against human papillomavirus, a prolific virus that causes many types of cancer. In fact, although it was initially approved to prevent cervical cancer, the most common HPV-associated cancer is head-and-neck cancer. Last month, Gardasil 9 was finally approved for the prevention of head-and-neck cancer.

That certainly took long enough! We’ve known for a long time that HPV is behind the epidemic of head-and-neck cancers, and we’ve known that the HPV vaccine guards against infection with this virus. With HPV causing more head-and-neck cancers than any other HPV-associated cancer in the United States, this approval was long overdue.

Bearing the Burden of HPV


Gardasil 9 is now approved for the prevention of head-and-neck cancer, shining a light on this epidemic.


Although its routine use in boys and men has been recommended since 2011, the HPV vaccine is still primarily thought of as a “girl’s vaccine,” invaluable for its ability to prevent cervical cancer. For the first few years of its existence, Gardasil was only FDA-approved for girls and women, and since then it has struggled to escape its gendered connotations. While this new FDA approval doesn’t change who is eligible to receive the vaccine, it does shine some awareness on head-and-neck cancer, and gives parents more evidence that this anti-cancer vaccine is important to give to sons, not just to daughters.

Head-and-neck cancers can strike anywhere from the lips to the larynx, or voice box, and up into the sinuses and nasal cavity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 11,300 U.S. men are diagnosed with head-and-neck cancer every year, compared to 2,200 U.S women. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Winning One War on Cancer

Cancer starts with the uncontrolled division of cells.

The developed world is in the midst of a huge nosedive in genital warts and cervical “precancer” — all thanks to the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. This simple shot trains the immune system to defend itself against HPV, a virus that causes genital warts and several types of cancer. Most sexually active people will be exposed to it in their lifetimes — it’s even been nicknamed the “common cold” of sexually transmitted infections.

Gardasil 9 protects against seven strains of HPV that collectively cause 90% of cervical cancers and anal cancers, plus the two HPV strains that are jointly responsible for 90% of genital warts. Vaccination also reduces the frequency of “precancers,” which are cellular abnormalities that can be treated before progressing into full-fledged cancer — meaning less time, money, and anxiety spent dealing with follow-up procedures and treatments.


The HPV vaccine is an anti-cancer vaccine.


The vaccine is safe and effective — and when we say “effective,” we mean it could lead to the eradication of HPV, and with it the cancers it causes. A recent analysis of 66 million vaccine recipients published in The Lancet points to plummeting rates of genital warts and precancer. Among teenage girls, there was an 83% drop in HPV-16 and HPV-18 infections (the two strains of HPV that together cause 70% of cervical cancers) — and cervical precancers were cut in half.

The most dramatic gains were made in countries that offered the HPV vaccine to both boys and girls. Additionally, there were even decreases in the HPV strains that aren’t covered by the vaccine — evidence of “cross-protection,” the phenomenon in which the immune system recognizes close relatives of the viruses it has been trained to attack. Even people who did not receive the vaccine were less likely to catch the virus, simply because their risk was reduced if their partners were vaccinated. Continue reading

From HPV to Cancer to Dry Mouth

Despite what a lot of people might think, oral sex is sex — not “third base,” not “everything but” — carrying with it the potential for both pleasure and disease transmission. That includes oral transmission of human papillomavirus (HPV), which can lead to head-and-neck cancer (aka oral cancer, aka oropharyngeal cancer). Unfortunately, because so many of us have a lax attitude toward it, fewer people take precautions when engaging in oral sex, and are less likely to use condoms or dental dams.


A head-and-neck cancer epidemic is striking younger people, spurred by HPV.


Head-and-neck cancer — which can strike anywhere from the lips to the larynx, and up into the sinuses and nasal cavity — is caused by several risk factors, chief among them oral infection with HPV. When HPV causes head-and-neck cancer, it usually occurs at the base of the tongue, at the back of the throat, in the tonsils, or in the soft palate.

HPV can be spread by most sexual activities, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex, as well as by rubbing genitals together. Although HPV is most famously associated with cervical cancer, it’s actually driving more cases of head-and-neck cancer in the United States.

It’s Oral, Head, and Neck Cancer Awareness Week — a time to learn about how head-and-neck cancer has changed over the years, what consequences it can have for survivors, and how it can be prevented in the first place.

A Changing Patient Profile

In 2017, scientists reported that oral HPV infections with cancer-causing strains of the virus are five times more common in men than in women, and that, likewise, HPV-associated head-and-neck cancers are more likely to strike men. That same year, researchers also reported that, in the United States, head-and-neck cancer among men has surpassed cervical cancer among women. As the years pass by, head-and-neck cancer rates are expected to continue to skew even more heavily toward the male population. Continue reading

STD Awareness: HPV Testing vs. the Pap Test

I love writing about health and medicine, but I hate going to the doctor. I don’t like taking my clothes off for a dermatological exam, I don’t like rolling my sleeve up for a shot, and I don’t like opening my mouth for a dentist. I don’t even like having my blood pressure taken — it gives me the heebie-jeebies, and probably a case of white-coat hypertension too.


For now, pelvic exams are a mainstay — and an important part of cancer prevention.


So when it comes to something even more invasive, like the Pap test to screen for cervical cancer, I’m one of those people pining for a magic wand — a tool that a health care provider can wave over your fully clothed body to detect disease. The Pap test may have transformed a scourge like cervical cancer into one of the most easily detected and treated cancers — and for that I love it — but I still fervently wish for its demise. As long as it’s replaced by something better, of course.

Last month, an article in JAMA inspired a burst of headlines. “HPV test more effective than Pap smear in cancer screening,” said CNN. Or as WebMD put it more succinctly, “HPV Test Beats Pap.” Then, last week, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force updated their guidelines to recommend that patients 30 and older can forgo the Pap test in favor of HPV testing alone. This news might be welcome to anyone who dislikes regular Pap tests and wishes to avoid stirrups and speculums. Unfortunately, HPV tests aren’t the noninvasive “magic wand” so many of us hope for. From the patient’s perspective, the experience of undergoing an HPV test is no different from the experience of undergoing a Pap test. They both require a pelvic exam — the stuff of stirrups and speculums. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Eliminating HPV-Related Cancers

Earlier this month, every major cancer center and organization in the country released a joint statement calling for the elimination of cervical cancer, along with all other HPV-related cancers. The elimination of a large swath of cancers might sound like a tall order — so far, we’ve only eradicated two viruses from the planet: smallpox and rinderpest. And we’re on the brink of getting rid of a third, the virus that causes polio.

But doing away with human papillomavirus (HPV) would herald a new chapter in disease eradication, because HPV causes cancer, meaning that eradicating HPV will eradicate the cancers caused by it. And the good news is we have all the tools we need to wipe HPV off the face of the earth — we just need to use them.


The tools to wipe a large class of cancers off the face of the earth are right under our noses — we just have to use them.


A quick rundown on HPV is in order. It’s the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world, and causes multiple cancers — cervical, head and neck, anal, vulvar, vaginal, and penile. While it’s most well-known for causing cervical cancer, here in the United States it is transitioning away from its old job, causing more head-and-neck cancers than cervical cancers. Nearly all sexually active people will be infected with HPV at least once in their lives, and though only a fraction of infections progress to cancer, its ubiquity means it still causes hundreds of thousands of cancers every year. In the United States, around 41,000 HPV-related cancers are diagnosed annually, while more than 600,000 are diagnosed worldwide. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Fighting Cervical Cancer Across the World

Tomorrow kicks off World Immunization Week, a reminder that, just as disease can cross borders, so should our efforts to prevent it. Especially when we have an effective vaccine for one of the world’s top causes of cancer — but the people who need it most are less likely to get it.

Almost 90 percent of cervical-cancer deaths strike women in developing countries, where it is the second-most common cancer among women. In fact, over vast swaths of Africa, cervical cancer is the No. 1 cause of cancer death in women. (In the United States, it doesn’t even crack the Top 10.) While cervical cancer rates are holding steady in the developed world, in the coming decades they are projected to increase sharply in less developed regions.


More than 9 out of 10 cervical cancers strike women in countries with no HPV vaccination programs.


Since 2006 there has been a vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that causes cervical cancer. Unfortunately, while this vaccine is making impressive strides in the developed world, it is almost out of reach in the developing world, where it could save the most lives. To fully realize this vaccine’s potential, it needs to be distributed worldwide — not just within rich countries that can afford it.

Fighting Cervical Cancer in the Developed World

HPV has been nicknamed “the common cold of STDs” — because pretty much every sexually active person will get it at some point. It can be transmitted by vaginal, anal, and oral sex, as well as by rubbing genitals together, even without penetration. HPV can cause cancers of the throat, anus, vagina, vulva, and penis — but is most “famous” for causing cancer of the cervix (the tissue that connects the vagina to the uterus). If you have a cervix, there are two big things you can do to protect its health: receive regular Pap testing after becoming sexually active, and get vaccinated against HPV before becoming sexually active. When you take both of these steps, you’ll maximize what modern medicine has to offer. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Transgender Men and Cervical Health

Healthy cervical cells as seen under a microscope. Image: National Cancer Institute

Just one month ago, headlines screamed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) received a list of “banned words” from the Trump administration. One of those words was transgender, raising the alarm that the current president might be eyeing policies that would further marginalize the trans population and harm their health. (Other forbidden words include fetus, evidence-based, and vulnerable.) Some have argued it wasn’t Trump policy per se, but self-censoring on the part of the CDC to protect their budgets from being slashed by legislators hostile to transgender rights, abortion rights, science, people of color, and poor people.

In any case, refusing to use words like transgender can have grave consequences for trans health. If the CDC can’t reference the trans population when requesting money for services and studies, they will be hobbled in their ability to serve that population’s needs.


Recommendations for cervical cancer screening are the same for anyone with a cervix, whether trans or cisgender.


January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. Anyone who has a cervix can develop cervical cancer — including transgender men who have not had their cervixes surgically removed. In observance of the month, and in defiance of directions to avoid the word transgender, today we’ll discuss the importance of cervical health in trans men — and why taxpayer-funded entities like the CDC and the National Institutes of Health must be able to study and serve this population.

Transgender men (or trans men for short) are individuals born with female reproductive organs, but who identify as male. Likewise, cisgender women were born with female reproductive organs and identify as female. Both trans men and cisgender women were born with cervixes, and wherever a cervix exists, the possibility of cervical cancer exists. Continue reading