The incidence of HPV cancers is increasing in Iowa.

While the overall number of new cases for most types of cancer in Iowa remains mostly unchanged, the number of cancers related to the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is on the rise.

According to the 2019 Cancer in Iowa report issued by the State Health Registry of Iowa, women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with HPV cancers. However, the incidence of HPV cancers among men is increasing, largely driven by increases in HPV-positive oropharyngeal (middle throat) cancers.

“Cervical cancer has been decreasing ever since the Pap test was introduced in 1940,” says Mary Charlton, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology at the UI College of Public Health. “Unfortunately, there is nothing like the Pap test for the other HPV-related cancers, and they are dramatically increasing among both males and females.” According to Charlton, this upward trend is even more substantial in rural areas, particularly the trend in oropharyngeal cancer.

Human Papillomavirus is a group of viruses that includes more than 150 different high- and low-risk types. High-risk HPV types can cause cancer in addition to inflammatory lesions. According to the report, most sexually active men and women will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives and most will never know they have been infected.

The best form of prevention is the HPV vaccine.

An effective vaccine to prevent HPV was introduced in 2006 and could prevent 90 percent of HPV-related cancers every year.

“Immunizing adolescents and young adults against HPV greatly reduces their chances of getting six different cancers, in addition to protecting against genital warts,” says Nathan Boonstra, MD, a pediatrician at Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines. “It’s really amazing to realize we have such an easy way to prevent cancer, and the more people who are vaccinated, the more lives will be saved.”

However, uptake of the HPV vaccine has been slow. In 2017, the HPV vaccination rate in Iowa was only 38 percent. According to Heather Meador, RN, BSN, clinical branch supervisor at Linn County Public Health, there are efforts at the county level to encourage more health care providers to talk to adolescent patients and their parents about the benefits of the HPV vaccine.

“Iowa has mandatory immunizations for children entering seventh grade,” she says. “We are educating physicians on the need to provide the required immunizations for school along with the recommended HPV vaccine that has been proven to be highly effective in reducing HPV-related cancers.”

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