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Human Papillomavirus: Preventing the Cancers It Causes

by Holly Mitzel

March 2023

Living in times of the COVID-19 virus, it's easy to overlook the other viruses that have serious impact on the human body. For example, last year another virus, the human papillomavirus – known as HPV for short – caused cancer in 85 North Dakota women and men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Public health experts know that about 8 of every 10 people will get an HPV infection in their lifetime. That's a lot of people that could get an HPV-linked cancer, including those 85 North Dakotans. One HPV-linked cancer is cervical cancer, the cervix being part of a woman's womb. Other cancers are in intimate areas, like the rectum and, in men, the penis. HPV is also responsible for some throat and mouth cancers.

Because providers don't have a good way to detect HPV-linked cancers before they are visible, doctors recommend a prevention attack on HPV: getting a shot against it, commonly referred to as getting vaccinated or immunized. Fortunately, the HPV vaccine has been around for almost 20 years and has a track record of doing its job. Doctors have learned that HPV vaccination is capable of preventing more than 90% of HPV cancers from even developing.

For anyone interested in getting the cancer-preventing HPV vaccination, it's important to understand that like many other childhood vaccines, it's given in a series early in life in order to offer the best protection before skin-to-skin virus exposure even happens. Shots can start between ages 9 to 15.

Doctors know there is some misunderstanding around the HPV vaccination. For example, the myth that only girls need the HPV vaccine because of cervical cancer risks. While boys cannot get that specific cancer, they can get the other HPV-related cancers. Some parents and teens still worry that the vaccine is unsafe. The HPV shot now has a 20-year track record of safety. The HPV shot is given in the arm or buttock muscle and, like most vaccines, there can be pain or swelling at the shot site for a few hours or even a few days. For some, fever, joint pain, or an upset stomach might also occur.

It's sometimes hard to keep health information straight about what viruses do which things to the human body. For HPV, it's clear. It can cause cancer. But remember, there is a safe vaccination that can decrease HPV's strong tendency to cause cancer. For that reason, it's an important option for the people in the Dickinson area to know about.

This article also appeared in the March 1, 2023 issue of the Dickinson Press.

About the Author

Holly Mitzel is a third-year medical student at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences. She was selected as the Dickinson participant for the school's ROME program, or Rural Opportunities in Medical Education. The program focuses on teaching student doctors the importance of rural newspapers as a way to share health information. As a future rural healthcare leader, Mitzel has written this column to provide health information for her ROME community. The information is not for diagnosis or treatment and should not be used in place of previous medical advice provided by a licensed practitioner.