US cervical cancers fall but other sex-related cancers rise

A new study shows screening and the HPV vaccine have led to drops in cervical cancers over the last two decades in the U.S. But those gains are offset by a rise in other tumors caused by the virus

Vaccine HPV Cancers
Vaccine HPV Cancers

Screening and the HPV vaccine have led to drops in cervical cancers over the last two decades in the U.S., a new study finds, but the gains are offset by a rise in other tumors caused by the virus.

Oral sex is helping fuel more cases of mouth and throat cancers in men. For older women, anal cancer and a rare type of rectal cancer caused by HPV may be more common than cervical cancers by 2025.

“A common misperception is the HPV vaccine has solved the problem of HPV-associated cancers. Unfortunately, that couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Dr. Maura Gillison of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, who was not involved in the study.

Results were released Wednesday by the American Society of Clinical Oncology ahead of presentation at its annual meeting next month.

HPV, or human papillomavirus, is the nation’s most common sexually spread infection. Most HPV infections cause no symptoms and go away without treatment.

But some cause genital warts and others develop into cancers, about 35,900 each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the U.S., the HPV vaccine has been recommended since 2006 for girls at age 11 or 12, and since 2011 for boys the same age, and catch-up shots are recommended for anyone through age 26 who hasn't been vaccinated. Experts agree it will take years to see the true impact because it can take decades for a chronic HPV infection to turn into cancer.

What's driving the HPV cancer trends is the youthful sexual behavior of baby boomers before the vaccine was out. The vaccine works best when given at younger ages before people are exposed to HPV through sexual activity, so it arrived too late for the boomers.

“Sexual trends began changing and liberalizing in the late ’60s, and continued into the ’70s and ’80s, until the HIV epidemic” caused people to be more cautious, said Dr. Ernest Hawk, cancer prevention specialist at MD Anderson, who was not involved in the study.

People had many more partners and many more types of interactions," Hawk said.

Researchers from the U.S. and Taiwan looked at U.S. cancer statistics from 2001-2017, finding more than 657,000 cases of HPV-related cancers, 60% in women and 40% in men. While cervical cancer cases fell by about 1% per year, other types rose.

For men, oral and throat cancers increased the most, at nearly 3% a year. For women, anal cancer and a rare rectal cancer increased the most, also nearly 3% annually.

The biggest drop in cervical cancers was seen in young women who would have been the first to get the HPV vaccine when they were preteens, said lead author Dr. Cheng-I Liao of Kaohsiung Veterans General Hospital in Taiwan. That suggests the vaccine played a role, along with Pap tests, which have been driving down cervical cancer cases for decades.

No screening tests exist for the other cancers, although research is underway.

One vaccine, Merck's Gardasil 9, is available in the U.S. The cost is fully covered by private and public health insurance.

Vaccination had been increasing before the COVID-19 pandemic and infections were declining dramatically among young women. Research suggests the vaccine was preventing oral infections in men too.

But vaccination dropped off during lockdowns as families missed routine doctor's appointments, Hawk said. Vaccinating middle and high school students for COVID-19 will give doctors a chance to encourage HPV shots at the same time, he said.

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in