As women—and soon men—gain access to the new Merck vaccine Gardasil, which targets the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stepped up efforts to identify the 25,000 or more cancers primarily associated with HPV that increase the burden of cancer in the United States each year. As reported in the November 15 supplement to the journal Cancer, the latest figures include 10,846 patients with invasive cancer of the cervix, followed by 7,360 with cancers of the mouth, particularly the tonsils and the back of the tongue. In addition, there are 3,018 cancers of the anus, 2,266 of the vulva, and 828 of the penis.
To the CDC, these are baseline numbers to track the life-threatening consequences of HPV infection. To sexually active young people, this report should be a wake-up call. The hows and whys of catching contagious warts and cancer through sex should be part of every parent's birds-and-bees talk, every school's sex-ed curriculum, and—most of all—all young people's thinking about their own sexual vulnerability. Here are seven need-to-know facts:
A universal caution echoed by some of my readers: Even the best vaccine can have side effects and does not eliminate the need for healthful habits and prudent behavior.