Pediatric Associates of the NW Blogs

Stop Calling the HPV Vaccine a STD Vaccine

Jay S. Rosenbloom, MD, PhD
September 22, 2011 08:15AM

The vaccine against the human papilloma virus (HPV) has been receiving a lot of attention lately.  When most people talk about the vaccine, they talk about it preventing a sexually transmitted disease, which it does.  HPV is one of the most common infections transmitted through sexual contact.  HPV was first associated with cervical cancer and the virus can be found in almost all cases of this type of cancer. The HPV vaccine was researched and developed with the goal of preventing cervical disease.

But there is more to the story…..

Recently studies have looked for, and found the virus in other cancers.  A recent review found studies linking HPV to cancers of the mouth, throat, colon, lung and breast.  Since we refer to HPV as a sexually transmitted infection, many assumed the virus in these cancer cases was only being passed in “sexual” behaviors, but this is where the story gets interesting.  It turns out about 4.5% of healthy adults have HPV detectable in their mouth. Studies also showed that when one spouse had HPV detectable in the mouth, they were more likely to infect their partner’s mouth HPV (and it did not correlate with oral sex in these couples).  Another study followed moms who had asymptomatic oral HPV infection and found their infants were 5 times more likely to get oral HPV.

Now that we know HPV is associated with more than just sexual transmission, more research is being done so we will know if the HPV vaccine will prevent cancers of the mouth or other sites.  Still, do not look to the pharmaceutical companies that make the vaccine to promote this information.  They are not allowed to by FDA rules.  They are only allowed to advertise for things they have proven the vaccine will do, not what it likely will do.

Our new understanding of HPV and the cancers it causes makes vaccinating children against HPV even more sensible.  Given the new research available, we can’t be sure that this virus is only passed through sexual contact and not through other activities, even activities as benign as kissing.  We also can’t predict when a pre-pubescent child will have exposure to this cancer-causing virus, either through sexual or non-sexual contact.

HPV is a cancer-causing virus, not just a sexually transmitted disease. We have a vaccine to fight against it. It is time to stop calling it the vaccine for sexually transmitted diseases and call it the cancer vaccine.