HPV

Why Public Schools Should Require the HPV Vaccine

Claire McCarthy, MD

Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Rhode Island recently made it a requirement for all children who attend a public school to be vaccinated with HPV. Not every one likes this is new requirement. Those who oppose the change point out that you catch HPV through sex, unlike infections like measles or whooping cough that you can catch if someone in the classroom has it and coughs on you. Why, they say, should the HPV vaccine be required for school? Because it could save lives, that’s why.

New vaccine is an important advance in stopping cervical and other HPV-related cancers

Gregory Curfman, MD

Assistant Professor of Medicine

Former Editor-in-Chief, Harvard Health Publishing

If you knew that a vaccine could prevent your daughter or son from developing a relatively common and potentially deadly cancer later in life, would you have her or him get it? Such a vaccine is available, and it’s about to get even better than it is now — but fewer than half of all teens have gotten it. The vaccine helps prevent infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV). It is responsible for cervical cancer, which strikes 12,000 women each year in the United States and kills 4,000. HPV also causes cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth, and throat. The vaccine, approved in 2006, attacks four types of HPV. The new one attacks nine types, and can help prevent most types of cervical cancer. Some parents worry that having their pre-teen daughters and sons vaccinated against HPV will nudge them into becoming sexually active or becoming sexually promiscuous. Studies, including a new one from Harvard, show that doesn’t happen.

Expert panel says healthy women don’t need yearly pelvic exam

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

The annual pelvic exam, an oft-dreaded part of preventive care for women, may become the as-needed pelvic exam, thanks to new guidelines from the American College of Physicians. For decades, doctors have believed this exam may detect problems like ovarian cancer or a bacterial infection even if a woman had no symptoms. But an expert panel appointed by the American College of Physicians now says that healthy, low-risk women do not need to have a pelvic exam every year. The exam isn’t very effective at finding problems like ovarian cancer or a vaginal infection, and it often causes discomfort and distress. Sometimes it also leads to surgery that is not needed. The new guidelines only apply to the pelvic exam, and only in healthy women.

HPV transmission during oral sex a growing cause of mouth and throat cancer

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Actress Angelina Jolie recently went public with her double mastectomy to prevent breast cancer. Governor Chris Christie told us his reasons for gastric bypass surgery. And now actor Michael Douglas is shining the spotlight on the human papilloma virus (HPV)—the number one cause of mouth and throat cancer. In an interview published in The Guardian newspaper in London, Douglas mentioned that his own throat cancer could have been brought on by oral sex, a common way to become infected with HPV. HPV transmitted by sexual contact often doesn’t become active enough to cause symptoms. When it does become active, it tends to invade mucous membranes, such as those covering the lining of the vagina, cervix, anus, mouth, tongue, and throat. An HPV infection can cause warts in and around these tissues. Most people sexually exposed to HPV never develop symptoms or health problems, and most HPV infections go away by themselves within two years. But the infection can persist and cause long-term problems. These include cervical cancer in women, penis cancer in men, and in both sexes some cancers of the anus and oropharyngeal cancer (cancer in the back of throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils).