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According to a new study, the number of cervical cancer cases in the U.S. has declined over the last 20 years, while other cancers caused by the human papillomavirus have risen.

The study, published by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, looked at more than 657,000 cases of HPV-related cancers between 2001 and 2017. Approximately 60% of cases were found in women and 40% in men. While cervical cancer cases fell by about 1% per year, oral and throat cancers increased nearly 3% per year in men. For women, anal cancer and a rare rectal cancer increased the most, also nearly 3% annually. Researchers suggest those cancers could become more common than cervical cancer by 2025.

Dr. Robert Wenham, chair and research director for Gynecologic Oncology

“We have been fortunate to have a vaccine that targets the cause of most cervical cancer, namely human papillomavirus,” said Dr. Robert Wenham, chair and research director for Gynecologic Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center.  “The addition of HPV testing during screening has also improved our detection in triage of women with pre-cancerous disease.”

While the HPV vaccine has been a significant factor in curbing the number of cervical cancer cases, it does not appear to be as successful in reducing other types of HPV-related cancers.

“The vaccine is effective, but its existence alone won’t stop these deadly diseases,” said Dr. Caitlin McMullen, a surgeon in the Head and Neck Oncology Program at Moffitt. “Increasing vaccination rates is important, in particular for men and boys who are eligible.”

Most HPV infections cause no symptoms and will go away without treatment, but according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 35,900 patients are diagnosed with HPV-related cancer each year.

The American Cancer Society recommends HPV vaccination between ages nine and 12. Children and young adults ages 13 through 26 who haven't been vaccinated, or who haven't gotten all their doses, should get the vaccine as soon as possible. The FDA has approved the Gardasil 9-valent vaccine for men and women up to age 45.

Cervical cancer screening with an HPV test is recommended every five years for everyone with a cervix from age 25 to 65. If HPV testing alone is not available, people can get screened with an HPV/Pap co-test every 5 years or a Pap test every 3 years. No screening tests exist for the other cancers.

“With cervical cancer screening, precancerous lesions can be identified and treated effectively to prevent the development of cancer,” said McMullen. “This is not currently possible with other types of HPV-related cancer such as certain head and neck cancers. Hopefully future research efforts will result in the development of an effective screening tool for these other diseases.”  

“Cervical cancer treatment guidelines have become more clearly defined and robust based on increasing data,” said Wenham. “It’s exciting news but we shouldn’t let our guard down and we should continue to use evidence-based medicine to further reduce and ultimately, hopefully, eliminate cervical cancer.”