Doctors urge use of HPV vaccine to curb oral cancer

Cancer causing HPV strain present in many adults

More than 25 percent of men and 20 percent of women in the United States carry a strain of the human papillomavirus that can cause cancer, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

“It is very concerning, and really, many people have referred to this phenomenon as an epidemic,” says Dr. Greg Hartig, a head and neck surgeon with UW Health.

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is one of the risk factors for oral cancer. Use of tobacco and excessive consumption of alcohol are other risk factors. But with the use of tobacco declining, the number of oral cancer cases traced to it is declining.

“Meanwhile we have this newer entity, which is high risk HPV infection, and in contrast, the percentage of people that have cancer due to high risk HPV goes up each year,” says Dr. Hartig.

Oral cancer caused by HPV has subtle symptoms. Because of that, an oral cancer screening performed by a dentist or a family physician takes on increased importance.

To prevent HPV, doctors recommend pre-adolescents be vaccinated.

“The truth is that if we can have broad application, broad administration of the vaccine this will be a disease of the past in the future,” says Dr. Hartig.