Three Shots to Prevent Cancer: How the HPV Vaccine is Working

Professor of Oncology, Departments of Health Behavior and Medicine
Friday, February 13, 2015 - 1:15pm

The human papillomavirus, or HPV, continues to be a preventable cause of many cancer cases across the globe. The most common type of cancer associated with HPV is cervical cancer, but it can also cause anal, vaginal, vulvar, penile and some kinds of throat cancer.

While HPV is commonly referred to as a  “sexually transmitted disease” it is actually transmitted as a result of skin-to-skin contact. In fact, research shows that greater than 80 percent of adults in the U.S. will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives. While some types of HPV may have little effect on overall health, other types can cause cancer, and it is therefore important to take steps focused on prevention.

Over the last several years, great strides have been made toward reducing the number of cases of HPV-related cancers with the introduction of HPV preventive vaccines targeted to adolescents and young adults, 9 to 26 years old. A quadrivalent HPV vaccine (Merck, gardasil™) was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2006 and a bivalent vaccine (GSK, Cervarix™) was approved in 2009 for females 9 to 25 years old. Cervarix prevents the two types of HPV that most often lead to cancer (HPV 16 and HPV 18) while Gardasil prevents infection by four types of HPV (HPV 6, 11, 16, 18), also protecting against genital warts. Both of these vaccines require completion of a three-dose series.

In December 2014, the FDA approved Gardasil 9, a 2nd generation vaccine. This updated version of Gardasil prevents nine types of HPV, including seven cancer-causing HPV types — offering the most comprehensive protection available today. The five additional types of HPV included in Gardasil 9 account for approximately 20 percent of cervical cancer cases, meaning that Gardasil 9 has the potential to prevent approximately 90 percent of cervical cancer, a substantial percentage of vulvar, vaginal, penile, and anal cancers and pre-cancers of these same sites.

It is critically important for parents of adolescents and pre-adolescents to talk to their children and to their primary care clinician about vaccination to prevent HPV. Similarly, young adults under age 27 who have not had the vaccine should contact their primary care physician to find out more information. These vaccines are considered a routine part of preventive care for adolescents and young adults and will continue to play an increasingly important role in cancer prevention. Through education, outreach and access, we can continue to see a reduction in rates of HPV-related cancers. This represents a unique opportunity focused on cancer prevention!

In October 2014, the National Cancer Institute awarded Roswell Park a one-year, $150,000 supplemental grant as part of an effort to increase the number of adolescents — both girls and boys — receiving the HPV vaccine. Roswell Park is one of only 18 centers around the country that will be leading this national effort. Read more.