HPV Awareness Day, which falls on the 4th of March every year, was started by the International Papillomavirus Society in 2018 to raise awareness about HPV and its effects. With widespread social media campaigning, organisations worldwide share information and resources to encourage everyone to learn about HPV and HPV cancers.
HPV is responsible for 5% of all cancers worldwide, yet there is a definite lack of education and understanding about the virus and its risks. 80% of people will contract some form of HPV in their lifetime, with some high-risk types leading to cancer. HPV is well known as the majority causal agent of cervical cancer, but fewer people are aware of its links to anal, oropharyngeal, penile, vulval, and vaginal cancer. HPV also causes Recurrent Respiratory Papillomatosis (RRP).
HPV related oral cancer for example is the fastest increasing type of cancer in many developing countries. HPV causes over 700,000 cancers per year, and nearly half a million people die each year from an HPV cancer. That’s why it’s so important to raise awareness about HPV through campaigns like International HPV Awareness Day.
While high-risk HPV types can and do cause a variety of cancers, they are preventable with the HPV vaccine and regular screening. Vaccinating both boys and girls against HPV worldwide is the first step towards eliminating HPV cancers. It is currently recommended that children should be vaccinated between the age of 11 and 12, before exposure to the virus. Despite HPV being so widespread and so easily preventable, awareness remains low. For example, in a recent European survey, less than half of the respondents were aware of the link between HPV and cancer. Only 1 in 3 knew that HPV can cause cancer in men. One of the biggest barriers to HPV awareness is the misconception that HPV is a female-only issue. This is due to its association with cervical screening (smear tests), and the fact that vaccine is given to girls only in most countries. Of the 6 cancers caused by HPV, only cervical cancer has routine screening guidelines.
HPV doesn’t discriminate, and neither should we when we decide who has access to the vaccine.
Many countries worldwide have implemented an HPV vaccination programme. However, all too often these programmes are only for girls and/or fail to meet minimum vaccination targets for herd immunity. For example, in the USA less than half of adolescents are up to date with their HPV vaccines. Gender-neutral HPV vaccination, protecting both boys and girls against this virus, is therefore a crucial tool for us to eliminate cancers caused by the virus.
The past year has seen great progress with more countries adopting gender-neutral vaccination programmes, and in the case of the EU, committing funding as part of the Beating Cancer Plan to eliminate cancers caused by HPV.
But there is still work to be done. As advocates and educators, we must continue to raise awareness about HPV, create resources for those who need it, and hold policy makers accountable. HPV causes 5% of cancers. These cancers are preventable with the HPV vaccine.
We can end the suffering caused by HPV by protecting both boys and girls against the virus worldwide.