For the past decade, human papillomavirus, better known as HPV, has been a pretty consistent headline grabber. Formerly a little-discussed virus, HPV was catapulted into the public consciousness in 2006, when suddenly people were all aflutter about this cancer-causing sexually transmitted pathogen, as well as Gardasil, the three-shot vaccination series the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was recommending to preteen girls as protection from cervical cancer.
Kids 14 and younger develop such a strong immune response to Gardasil that they only need two doses — not three!
Dialogue has evolved since then, as people have recognized that HPV causes more than just cervical cancer — including anal cancer, head-and-neck cancer, and penile cancer — meaning that all children should be vaccinated, not just girls. And fears that the vaccine will “encourage” promiscuity still abound, despite thorough scientific debunking. In fact, many experts believe that our skittishness surrounding sexuality — especially when it comes to teenagers — causes parents to turn a blind eye to the importance of vaccinating their children against HPV. (Unvaccinated children might not appreciate their parents’ choice, if, say, a few years down the line they find a smattering of genital warts below their belts.)
Ongoing scientific research into Gardasil and the virus it protects against provides continuous fodder for journalists covering medical and scientific advances. Here are just a few of the most recent headlines featuring HPV:
- The vaccine has cut the cervical cancer rate in half over the past 10 years, with many experts optimistic that within our lifetimes we’ll rid the planet of HPV-associated cancers.
- Women who were vaccinated as preteens could receive less frequent Pap tests — every five years for those who received the first-generation version of Gardasil, and every 10 years for those who received Gardasil 9.
- Compared to women, men run four times the risk of acquiring HPV-associated head-and-neck cancer, underscoring the need to vaccinate boys as well.
- Still, too few preteens and adolescents are receiving the vaccine, prompting recommendations that doctors frame it to patients as a cancer vaccine rather than prevention for an STD.
- Genetic analysis has found that HPV-16, the strain responsible for the majority of cervical and anal cancers, was given to our species by Neanderthals around 60,000 years ago. Thanks a lot, guys!