Downward Trend in HPV Awareness a Concern in Fight Against Cancer

By Pat Carragher - April 24, 2023

Fewer Americans are aware of the link between human papillomavirus (HPV) and cancer than almost a decade ago. A new study looked at data collected by the Health Information National Trends Survey. The results were presented at the American Association for Cancer Research’s Annual Meeting.

Researchers studied Americans’ knowledge about the virus’s connection to cancer. From 2014 to 2020, more than 2,000 adults answered survey questions about the virus. Results showed awareness that HPV can cause anal, oral and penile cancers was low throughout the duration of the study. Awareness that the virus can cause cervical cancer dropped the most: In 2020, researchers found that 70.2% of respondents know that HPV can cause cervical cancer, down from 77.6% in 2014.  

“It’s really unfortunate,” said Dr. Jing-Yi Chern, gynecologic oncologist in the Department of Gynecologic Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center. “I think part of the problem is that during this time period we had the pandemic. With health care in general, people were not doing their well visits like they normally would have. Because you’re not seeing your primary care providers on a frequent basis, you’re not being educated frequently and not getting that reiteration of the importance of being vaccinated.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 13 million Americans will become infected with HPV each year. The virus is spread through intimate skin-to-skin contact. You can get HPV by having vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who has the virus, even if they don’t have signs or symptoms.

Although most HPV infections go away within two years and do not cause cancer, there are some high-risk types that persist for many years. These types can lead to cell changes, which may progress to cancer, including cervical, vaginal, vulvar, anal, penile, and head and neck cancers.

More than 90% of cervical cancer cases are caused by HPV. The good news is that almost all cervical cancer can be prevented by HPV vaccination.

“We were doing so well pre-pandemic in educating the public and getting people vaccinated to prevent key cancers,” Chern said. “These are very difficult to treat cancers when they manifest. This study reiterates the importance that we must get campaigns out there to educate the public again. We need to educate not just all of our patients, but community physicians and health care providers to reiterate the importance of vaccinating against HPV.”

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"We need to educate not just all of our patients, but community physicians and healthcare providers to reiterate the importance of vaccinating against HPV."

- Dr. Jing-Yi Chern, Department of Gynecologic Oncology

The Centers for Disease Control recommends children ages 11–12 receive two doses of the HPV vaccine, given six to 12 months apart. HPV vaccines can be given to children as early as 9 years old. Children who start the HPV vaccine series on or after their 15th birthday need three doses, given over six months.

All available versions of the HPV vaccine have been tested and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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