The ABCs of HPV

The infection doesn’t just cause cervical cancer

Garnet Henderson
Elemental
Published in
6 min readJul 23, 2019

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A syringe is injected into a vial against blue background.
Credit: Karl Tapales/Moment/Getty

MMost people know that human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical cancer. But HPV is also behind other types of the disease, including cancers of the vulva, penis, and anus. One type has surpassed even cervical cancer as the most common: HPV-associated cancer of the oropharynx, or throat.

“The vast majority of people have no idea that HPV causes this subset of cancers,” says Daniel Faden, MD, a head and neck cancer surgeon at Massachusetts Eye and Ear. Even some doctors don’t realize it, he says.

“If you look at the trends, cervical cancer rates continue to go down due to effective screening,” Faden adds. “Oropharyngeal cancers, on the other hand, are rising at epidemic proportions.”

HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers occur in a specific area of the throat: in the tonsils and at the base of the tongue, the part people can’t see or touch. They are a subset of squamous cell carcinoma, the most common form of cancer in the head and neck, says Jennifer Cracchiolo, MD, a head and neck cancer surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. The most common risk factor for these cancers used to be alcohol and tobacco use, but now 70% to 90% are caused by HPV.

According to the CDC, between 1999 and 2015, cervical cancer rates decreased 1.6%…

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Garnet Henderson
Elemental

Freelance journalist reporting on health and abortion access. Host and producer of ACCESS https://www.apodcastaboutabortion.com/ https://garnethenderson.com/