Could the HPV Vaccine Treat Other Cancers?
Doctors have raised hopes that the Human Papilloma Virus vaccine, introduced over the last couple of years to protect young women against cervical cancer (and genital warts, when the Gardasil version is used) could also protect against different types of cancer, including cancers in men.
Recent research has linked the HPV virus, a very common STD associated with cervical cancer and genital warts, to a series of cancers in the head, neck and urinary-genital tract. A 2007 study at John Hopkins University showed that the oral HPV virus was the ‘strongest risk factor’ for a particular throat cancer, while the Journal of the National Cancer Institute has reported that DNA from the virus was discovered in between 10 to 20% of all head and neck squamous cancer cells.
The STD has also been linked to skin cancers, though the Dartmouth School of Medicine who made the finding warned that sun exposure was still the key cause of malignant skin cancer cells. Currently, most western countries only vaccinate teenage girls against HPV. The virus is estimated to cause 70% of cases of cervical cancer, the most common cancer in women under 30, and 90% of cases of genital warts.
Experts have increasingly been calling for teenage boys also to be vaccinated against HPV to stop its spread, and the new research may support their calls for vaccination programs to be widened. There is concern that young men can carry HPV so can still infect their partners. There are two vaccines currently available, Cervarix and Gardasil. Cervarix is cheaper but there has been criticism that the UK government chose it as the primary vaccine offered to girls, as unlike its rival it does not protect against genital warts.
In September Gardasil was approved for use in males aged between 9 to 26 as a means of protecting them against genital warts and anal cancers. Genital warts are an extremely common sexually transmitted disease and can cause great misery to those infected. Though the warts can be treated with topical creams like Warticon and Condyline, the virus can cause the warts to repeatedly recur.
Nonetheless, the American Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have only recommended the vaccine for optional use in men, based on a Harvard study that cast doubt on how cost-effective a vaccination program for boys would be. If further studies show that HPV can cause other cancers, however, then health authorities in the UK and US may decide to reconsider the vaccination program in their respective countries.
Abigail Lewin is a health writer specialising in sexual health and lifestyle medical issues. She has written about conditions such as chlamydia, genital warts and treatments like Condyline or Warticon.