During a recent two-year period, almost 23 percent of U.S. adults ages 18 to 59 had a type of genital human papillomavirus, or HPV, that put them at high risk of certain cancers, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report published Thursday.
That percentage jumped to more than 42 percent during 2013 to 2014 if any type of genital HPV was included, the CDC found. In both groups, prevalence was higher in men than in women, and it was sharply higher among blacks compared to other racial and ethnic groups.
“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 a senior infectious disease epidemiologist in the Division of Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, said. “People really need to realize that this is a serious concern.”
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. The CDC estimates that nearly 80 million people are infected and that about 14 million new infections occur annually among teenagers as well as adults. Most of these go away on their own, typically without even causing symptoms, but some HPV strains can lead to genital warts and cancer. Each year, 31,000 men and women are diagnosed with cancers caused by HPV — which, in most cases, would have been preventable with the HPV vaccine, according to the CDC.
The CDC recommends HPV vaccinations for youth ages 11 to 12 so they become protected before potential exposure to the virus through sexual contact. While vaccination rates have been increasing, they still lag for boys and girls.
Lingering misconceptions and fears are among the reasons for the lower HPV vaccine uptake, according to Electra Paskett, a cancer control researcher at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center. Some people still think vaccination encourages youth to become promiscuous. “The way [the vaccine] was introduced in Australia and the United Kingdom was as a cancer vaccine, which is truly what it is. It is a cancer vaccine,” Paskett said.
The new CDC report also addresses oral HPV infections. From 2011 to 2014, their prevalence was 7 percent among people ages 18 to 69, it found. As with genital HPV, rates were higher for men than women overall and in all racial and ethnic groups. The same disparities also were found among those groups: Asians had the lowest rates and blacks had the highest rates.