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Study shows the HPV vaccine can prevent head and neck cancers, not just cervical cancer

This stock photo shows a doctor giving a young girl a vaccine shot. Gov. Kathy Hochul said Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022, that children ages 5 and older are now eligible to receive the new bivalent COVID-19 booster shot.
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This stock photo shows a doctor giving a young girl a vaccine shot. Gov. Kathy Hochul said Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022, that children ages 5 and older are now eligible to receive the new bivalent COVID-19 booster shot.

The HPV vaccine was first introduced as a way to prevent cervical cancer in women. The vaccine has proven to be 90% effective in protecting against the disease.

But a new study released by the American Society of Clinical Oncology shows that the two-dose vaccine series can reduce the risk of other HPV-related cancers by 50%. That includes head and neck cancers.

“Actually oropharyngeal cancers have outpaced the incidence of cervical cancer, and most people aren't aware of that,” said Dr. Cynthia Rand, a vaccine delivery researcher at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

“This just brings attention to the idea that this is the reason to vaccinate boys as well.,” Rand said.

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The study, as highlighted in this article by URMC, tracked 1.7 million males and females, ranging from age 9- 39, who received the HPV vaccine over a 13-year span. The results were based on the analysis of medical records.

Rand said the study also underscored the importance of receiving the HPV vaccine at a younger age to attain a higher antibody response. She said once people are in their early 20’s, the likeliness of exposure increases, and the vaccine becomes much less effective.

“It's not a therapeutic vaccine, meaning once you've been exposed, it doesn't treat HPV,” Rand said.

The U.S. Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends vaccination for individuals up to age 26. Anyone older is advised to talk to a primary care physician. Rand said as individuals get older the number of doses needed for good protection increases to three doses.

The National Cancer Institute awarded Rand and her team about $2 million dollars to aid in HPV vaccine rollout and to find more effective ways of getting children vaccinated.

Racquel Stephen is WXXI's health, equity and community reporter and producer. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Rochester and a master's degree in broadcasting and digital journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.