HPV-vax-gender-neutral-1024x1024The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine prevents cancer, but misunderstanding, stigma and confusion surrounding HPV and its related cancers continues to exist. This is leading to low immunization rates and the endangering of the next generation of boys and girls and the men and women they become. However, awareness is being raised through individuals like Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito courageously announcing their battles with HPV and its related cancers.

“City Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, has shown great courage this week by sharing her HPV diagnosis. She confronted an outdated and harmful stigma surrounding this carcinogenic virus in the name of public health,” said Justine Almada, Co-Founder and Executive Director of The HPV and Anal Cancer Foundation. “HPV is a skin virus that nearly everyone is exposed to — and the number of men and women getting cancers from it increase every year. The tools we have today, particularly the HPV vaccine, are critical to ending for good the devastation caused by this virus. I only wish my mom — who died from an HPV-related cancer — had access to it when she was young. We all deserve the right to a healthier life, and the Speaker’s actions take a step towards that goal.”

HPV can be obsolete: HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the US. According to the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC), 79 million people in the United States are infected with HPV at this time, and about 14 million people become newly infected each year. HPV is responsible for approximately 5% of all cancers globally including cervical, anal, vulvar, vaginal, penile and head and neck cancers. Although most people fight off HPV infections with the body’s natural defenses, over 31,500 people will be diagnosed with an HPV-related cancer this year in the US.

The U.S. President’s Cancer Panel has focused their annual report on Accelerating HPV Vaccine Uptake expressing that the “underuse of HPV vaccines a serious but correctable threat to progress against cancer.” At the same time, HPV-associated oral and anal cancers are increasing. Vaccines are available that protect against the most common cancer-causing strains of the virus, HPV-16 and HPV-18.

However, HPV vaccination rates are still staggeringly low. Looking specifically at New York, the New York State Comprehensive Cancer Control Plan notes that only 40% of girls 13-17 years old have completed the necessary three doses of the vaccine, and about 18% of boys 13-17 years old have received just the first dose in New York State.

In the US, both boys and girls are recommended to receive the vaccine at age 11-12, but uptake is dangerously low with only 37.6% of girls and 13.9% of boys age 13 to 17 receiving the full 3 doses of the vaccine in 2007-2013. The President’s Cancer Panel stated that “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that increasing HPV vaccination rates from current levels to 80 percent would prevent an additional 53,000 future cervical cancer cases in the United States among girls who now are 12 years old or younger over the course of their lifetimes. Thousands of cases of other HPV-associated cancers in the U.S. also likely would be prevented within the same timeframe. A growing proportion of these cancers—most notably, oropharyngeal cancers—will occur in males, who currently are vaccinated at very low rates.”

Michael Douglas and City Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, have bravely stood up and announced their personal battles with HPV. There is no medical treatment for HPV once it is contracted, but we can prevent it and end HPV. Standard screening protocols only exist for the prevention of cervical cancer.

Ms. Almada added, “We need to add HPV to the list of smallpox, polio and other prevented viruses, but this can only be done by immunizing our children – let’s hope the announcement makes a sustained change to the way we view HPV.”

Justine, Tristan and Camille Almada founded the HPV and Anal Cancer Foundation in July 2010, three months after their mother, Paulette Isabel Crowther, died of Stage IV HPV-related anal cancer.