More than 42 percent of adults in the United States are infected with human papillomavirus ― and nearly 23 percent are infected with a high-risk strand of the virus that can cause cancer, according to a report published by the National Center for Health Statistics on Thursday.
“We tend to overlook the fact that 20 percent of us are carrying the virus that can cause cancer,” Geraldine McQuillan, lead author of the report and an epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told The Washington Post.
“People really need to realize that this is a serious concern.”
The report, which examined U.S. adults ages 18 to 59, marks the first time the CDC has recorded HPV rates in men as well as women. There is no FDA-approved HPV test for men, but the CDC developed its own test for the research. “We did penile swabs which we tested for HPV DNA,” McQuillan told The Huffington Post.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the country, and nearly every sexually active American will be exposed to it by their early 20s. Although 90 percent of HPV infections clear the body within two years, that’s not always the case. High-risk strains are linked to cervix, vaginal, penile, anus and throat cancers.
In fact, two high-risk strains, HPV-16 and -18, cause nearly all cervical cancer cases.
Not all Americans have the same risk of contracting high-risk HPV. Asian-Americans had the lowest HPV rate (12 percent), followed by whites and Hispanics (22 percent). Black Americans had the highest HPV prevalence (34 percent), according to the report. Overall, men were more likely to have high-risk genital HPV than women.
“We tend to overlook the fact that 20 percent of us are carrying the virus that can cause cancer.”- Geraldine McQuillan, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The best defense against HPV is getting the HPV vaccine before being exposed to the virus. The CDC strongly recommends the HPV vaccine as a cancer-prevention method for boys and girls starting at age 11, before they are exposed to the virus through sex.
“I commonly hear parents thinking that it’s better to wait until their children are sexually active before immunizing,” Dr. Dean Blumberg, associate professor and chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital, previously told The Huffington Post.
“Younger children have a more robust immune response to HPV vaccine compared to older children and young adults,” Blumberg said. “Specifically, children 9 to 15 years of age develop higher antibody levels after the vaccine series compared to 16- to 26-year-olds.”
While there’s no treatment for HPV itself (just for some symptoms, such as genital warts), routine Pap smears can catch cancer caused by the virus in its early stages. People with HPV should also use a condom to avoid passing the disease to a partner.
The CDC recommends cervical cancer screening for women ages 21 and older. The FDA approved an HPV test for women in 2003, but only 39 percent of clinicians ordered the test during a study of five Michigan health clinics from January 2008 to April 2011.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that high-risk strains of HPV are linked to genital warts. In fact, genital warts are linked to low-risk strains of the disease.