HPV and cancer: The underappreciated connection

Robert H. Shmerling, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Did you know that a viral infection can lead to a number of different types of cancer? If that comes as a surprise to you, you’re not alone. In fact, according to a new study, many people have no idea that a common viral infection called human papilloma virus (HPV) can cause cancer of the genitals, anus, mouth, and throat, as well as cervical cancer.

Viral infections and cancer

The connection between certain viral infections and cancer has been recognized for many years. Some of the most well-established examples include hepatitis C, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and human papillomavirus (HPV). One thing these viruses have in common is that the immune system may have trouble fighting them off, allowing an infection to become chronic.

HPV and cancer

According to the CDC, HPV causes about 44,000 cancers in men and women each year in the US. The connection between HPV and cancer is particularly important to know about, because there is an approved vaccine to prevent many strains of HPV infection most closely linked to cancer. And it works: since the approval of the initial vaccine in 2006, rates of HPV infection and cervical cancer have dropped significantly.

Unfortunately, far too few kids and young adults receive the vaccine. Perhaps a lack of awareness of the link to different cancers is one reason for the low numbers, even though the connection has been known for many years. Besides cervical cancer, HPV can also cause cancers of the

  • mouth and throat
  • penis
  • anus
  • vagina and vulva.

It would help if many more people understood the link between HPV and cancer. A study recently published in JAMA Pediatrics surveyed more than 6,200 adults in the US about their knowledge of HPV and cancer. Here’s what the researchers found.

  • Two-thirds of women and one-third of men ages 18 to 26 knew that HPV can cause cervical cancer.
  • 80% of women and 75% of men between the ages of 18 to 26 knew that HPV plays a role in cancers of the penis, anus, and mouth.
  • But, among adults of all age groups, more than 70% did not know about the link between HPV and penile, anal, and oral cancers.

Clearly, there is a large knowledge gap regarding HPV and the serious problems it can cause. The findings among young adults are particularly notable. As they become parents in the years ahead, they’ll be the ones making decisions for their kids about vaccination.

Who should receive the HPV vaccination?

Current recommendations advise vaccination for all boys and girls ages 11 to 12, though it can be given as early as age 9. It can also be given after age 12, but if one waits until age 15 or older, three doses (instead of two) are recommended. Ideally, the vaccination happens before any exposure to the HPV virus occurs during sexual activity, so delaying vaccination is not advised.

What if a person isn’t vaccinated at this time? The CDC recommends catch-up vaccinations for everyone through age 26. People between 27 and 45 may also receive the vaccine, although they may already have been exposed to HPV and may be less likely to benefit. Talk to your doctor about your situation and preferences.

The bottom line

Currently, only about half of eligible teens have received the HPV vaccination as recommended. Hopefully, more widespread recognition of the connection between HPV and different types of cancer will increase vaccination rates. Those who were not vaccinated as teens may benefit from the vaccine as adults.

Talk to your doctor about which vaccinations are recommended for you. While we usually think of vaccinations as a way to prevent infection, in the case of HPV, vaccination may also prevent several types of cancer.

Follow me on Twitter @RobShmerling


Public Knowledge of Human Papillomavirus and Receipt of Vaccination Recommendations. JAMA Pediatrics, September 16, 2019.

Related Information: Harvard Health Letter


  1. Richard

    Please do not believe, however, that vaccination for HPV implies that certain cancers are no longer a threat. I am not an oncologist, I am not a physician, yet I know three women who have been diagnosed with non-HPV cervical cancer. Even if you have been vaccinated, if you have any suspicious symptoms, see a qualified healthcare professional without delay.

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