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Study Finds 73% of Head and Neck Cancers Caused by Vaccine-Preventable Virus

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the cause of nearly 35,000 cancers per year. Bryce Newberry, a reporter at KVUE, found that a new UT Austin study shows that 73% of head and neck cancers are related to the HPV virus.

The finding is significant as alcohol and tobacco were traditionally blamed for head and neck cancers. But now researchers say these cancers come from HPV, which is transmitted through oral sex.

The CDC reports that HPV affects nearly 79 million Americans. According to UT Health Austin obstetrician-gynecologist Lauren Thaxton, MD, who is a part of both UT Health Austin’s Complex Contraception care team and UT Health Austin’s Pregnancy Loss Management care team, “Most everyone gets [HPV], so most everyone gives it, so it’s everywhere.” She states the vaccine, which is given in a series of three shots, is recommended for girls and boys age 9 to 11, ideally before they start having sex. However, in 2019, the Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine for men and women up to 45 years of age.

“HPV is a virus that, because it is usually transmitted, we don’t talk about it a lot and it’s often stigmatized,” says Dr. Thaxton. The virus could lead to cervical or head and neck cancers.

UT Health Austin medical oncologist Laura Chow, MD, who specializes in head and neck cancers, states, “The best way to prevent HPV is vaccinating early.” Dr. Chow researched head and neck cancers, finding 73% of those cases are now related to HPV rather than tobacco and alcohol. She says that there is usually a lag period of 10-20 years before researchers see the viral infection subsequently causing cancer. Dr. Chow sees patients through UT Health Austin’s Livestrong Cancer Institutes.

According to a 2017 study by The University of Texas at Austin, Texas ranked 47th out of the 50 states for up-to-date HPV vaccinations. In 2018, the Texas Medical Association approved an 8-point plan to improve vaccination rates.

Dr. Thaxton understands that many patients have a fear of vaccines, particularly surrounding what is contained in the vaccine and whether they are safe or not. She says this vaccine is “extraordinarily safe.” In addition to the prevention of cancer causing HPV, the vaccine also protects against HPV strains that cause genital warts. According to Dr. Thaxton, if you don’t know whether you’ve been vaccinated, it is not harmful to have the vaccine administered again just to make sure you are protected. There are dozens of strains of the HPV virus, so if you’ve been infected, getting vaccinated can help protect you from cancer-causing strains in the future.

To learn more or to make an appointment with the Livestrong Cancer Institutes, please call 1-833-UT-CARES (1-833-882-2737) or visit here.

About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin is the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. We collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to provide patients with an unparalleled quality of care. Our experienced healthcare professionals deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality and treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working directly with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.