Colorado Can Combat Oral Cancer with the HPV Vaccine

April 19, 2023

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Oral cancer diagnoses are dramatically increasing in the U.S., with oropharyngeal (throat) cancer driving this increase. According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, approximately 54,000 Americans were diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancers in the U.S. last year. Human Papillomavirus, or HPV, is estimated to cause 70% of all oropharyngeal cancer cases. Thankfully, there is a vaccine that prevents HPV and the cancers it can cause! 

During Oral Cancer Awareness Month in April, the Alliance for HPV Free Colorado is encouraging parents to get their adolescent boys and girls vaccinated against HPV to help prevent HPV-related cancers that can develop later in life. HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer is four times more likely to occur in men, and is now the most common HPV-related cancer, overtaking cervical cancer cases. 

“Although tobacco use and heavy alcohol consumption remain major risk factors for oral cancer, research shows that infection with the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is responsible for the rise of oropharyngeal/throat cancer diagnoses,” said Susan Cotten, RDH, BS, OMT, the Dental Workgroup Lead for the Alliance. “The HPV vaccine is the best way to prevent these cancers.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends adolescent boys and girls get the HPV vaccine at ages 11-12; however, it can be given as early as age nine. Giving the vaccine at this age is important because it protects kids before they are ever exposed to HPV, and it is also when the immune response to the vaccine is the strongest. Kids who initiate the HPV vaccine series before their 15th birthday need just two doses. If started after they turn 15, three doses are recommended.

Four out of five people will get HPV at some point in their lives, and while most infections clear on their own, some persist and cause cancer in both men and women. The HPV vaccine can prevent more than 90% of HPV-related cancers, including oropharyngeal, cervical, vaginal, penile, anal, and rectal cancers, from ever developing. The HPV vaccine is cancer prevention!

Despite the HPV vaccine’s cancer-preventing power, data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) indicate that only 52% of 9-17-year olds in Colorado have initiated the HPV vaccine series and that only 34% have completed the series. HPV vaccination rates across Colorado vary widely by region, with the rate of adolescents 9-17 who have completed the series hovering around only 20% in some areas. These rates show that Colorado has a lot of ground to cover in order to meet the Healthy People 2023 goal of 80% HPV vaccination coverage.

“This vaccine can literally prevent cancer, which, as a survivor, I can safely say is incredibly worthwhile,” said Jay Middleton, an oropharyngeal cancer survivor. “I want to encourage parents to consider the HPV vaccine for their child and talk with their doctor about any questions. If this vaccine were around when I was young and could have prevented my cancer, I know my parents would have gotten it for me.”

The Alliance for HPV Free Colorado is a regional collaborative led by the Public Health Institute at Denver Health. The Alliance aims to implement a multidisciplinary approach that results in a sustainable increase in completion of the HPV vaccine series for 9-17 year olds across Colorado. The Alliance is supported by the Cancer, Cardiovascular and Chronic Pulmonary Disease Grants Program to address cancer. Partners include the Public Health Institute at Denver Health, Jefferson County Public Health, Boulder County Public Health, Weld County Department of Public Health & Environment, Northeast Colorado Health Department, Immunize Colorado, Oral Cancer Consulting and the Adult and Child Consortium for Health Outcomes Research and Delivery Science (ACCORDS).

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