HPV-linked cancers on rise, more prevalent in Kentucky

The human papillomavirus, which is generally blamed for causing cervical cancer, is being linked to the formation of several other kinds of cancer, and Kentuckians are getting these diseases in unusually high numbers, reports Laura Ungar of The Courier-Journal.

HPV is being linked to cancers of the vagina, vulva, penis, anus and lung, as well as the head and neck. “It’s turning out to be a pretty bad actor … an extensive health problem,” said Dr. Daniel Metzinger, a gynecological oncologist with University of Louisville Physicians.

Kentucky’s rates for HPV-related cancer are among the highest in the country. Part of the reason may be that smoking is a risk factor and Kentucky has the nation’s highest smoking rate, Ungar reports. “I’m seeing more of it for sure,” said Metzinger. “It used to be a disease we’d see in older people. Now, we see it in younger and younger people.”

One way to protect against the virus is to be immunized with the HPV vaccine. A federal committee recommends vaccinating 11- and 12-year-old girls through to women up to age 26. Boys and men should also be immunized from age 11 to age 21. The immunization must occur before the patient is sexually active, since HPV is sexually transmitted.

In 2010, just 49 percent of adolescent girls nationwide received at least the first of the vaccine’s three doses, and only a third had gotten all three, which are required for full effectiveness. In Kentucky that year, only 25 percent of adolescent females had gotten the first dose, and fewer than 11 percent have received all three doses, according to Cervical Cancer-Free Kentucky.

National Cancer Institute numbers show more than half of sexually active people are infected with HPV at some point. Usually, it goes away on its own within a few years. “But it can also set the stage for cancer,” Ungar reports. “Across the nation, about 26,000 new cancers attributed to HPV occur each year, with 18,000 in women and 8,000 in men.” (Read more)

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