Protect Yourself from HPV in Cervical Health Awareness Month  

by Winnie McCroy

EDGE Editor

Thursday January 21, 2016

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, and a time to talk about how women can protect themselves from Human Papillomavirus (HPV), a major cause of cervical cancer. 
Dr. Susan Maples, one of the top eight innovators in U.S. Dentistry who runs a total health practice, and is author of "Blabber Mouth: 77 Secrets Only Your Mouth Can Tell You to Live a Healthier, Happier, Sexier Life," said there is a lot of information most people don't know about HPV but should.
"It's pretty common knowledge that HPV causes cervical cancer, but HPV is an even bigger threat for oral cancer," said Maples. "Among newly diagnosed cases of oral cancer, the fastest-growing segment is people under 40 infected with HPV type-16."

HPV is one of the most common virus groups in the world, affecting 20 million Americans and 6 million new infections a year, according to CDC statistics. HPV infection of the high risk types causes cellular change, predisposing the tissue in the back of the mouth and throat to deadly oral cancer. 

Smoking and alcohol use also put you at a great risk for oral cancer, but the risk of developing oral cancer from HPV-16 could be more than 10 times the risk of developing it from smoking or habitual alcohol use. So here's a special note for teens and sexually active adults: No matter what you've heard, there is no safe sex -- not even oral sex.

"HPV is transmitted though oral sex and the most-high risk types account for 60 percent of all mouth and throat cancer," said Maples. "Twenty-five types of HPV have been associated with cancer, but HPV-16 alone poses ten times the risk of mouth and throat cancer from smoking. HPV infection is thought to be increasing at 30 percent per year. So despite what you may have heard, oral sex is not safe sex."
To lower the risk of cervical cancer, the CDC recommends vaccination against HPV at the age of 11 or 12. Be careful: this gives us a false sense of security because we don't yet know when the protection drops off and if re-vaccination will be as effective.

"If you test negative for HPV by all means you can pay for the vaccine, even if your insurance doesn't cover it (over that age of 21 for boys and 26 for girls).  You can get it for $200-300 at your local pharmacy," said Maples. "But don't trust the vaccine alone, as it only vaccinates for 4 of the 25 cancer-associated strains of HPV and we don't know how long your protection will last."

Maples said there is no benchmark yet of when people should go back and get revaccinated, but noted that the vaccine is being redesigned to include more strains. She warns that, "protection depends on the individual response and we don't have any given guidelines for a booster."

While vaccination is pushed more for young girls, males should be vaccinated as well to protect against HPV, oral cancer and penile cancer. In addition, I encourage everyone, even adults, to get vaccinated. After all, finding cervical cancer from a "preventive" pap smear or oral cancer from an oral cancer "screening" exam is not truly preventive like vaccination.

There are 151 strains of HPV and testing is as easy as a simple saliva test. Maples said that Oral DNA Laboratories offers a saliva test for 51 of the 150 types of HPV, including the 25 that have been associated with cancer.

"From a single swish-n-spit test in your dental office you can have results in a few days," she said. "If positive, Oral DNA recommends retesting within a year to see if the infection 'clears' or 'persists.' If it persists you will want to up the ante on your oral cancer detection strategy."

When you consider that 20 million people are currently infected with HPV, another six million become infected each year and that it greatly increases the chances of cervical, penile and oral cancer, everyone should be tested and vaccinated.

If you have already tested positive for HPV, you should know that HPV related-oral cancers are deadly -- 62 percent survive for five years from diagnosis and only 51 percent survive 10 years. Maples said your best chance to avoid oral cancer is to be vigilant in your testing.

"There is no said protocol for detecting early cancers in the dark of the tonsils and throat, but I would recommend the HPV-positive patient be tested with an oral cancer detection light at least every three months and be sedated for a throat scope at least once a year," said Maples. "As we all know, early cancer detection offers the best hope for survival."

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Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.