HPV Cancer Resources

Helpful Information for Parents, Patients, Partners, and Providers

Helpful Information for Parents, Patients, Partners, and Providers

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The Most Frequently Asked Questions About HPV (And A Few Infrequent Ones Too)

  • 1) What is the human papilloma virus (HPV)?

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    The term HPV is used to describe a family of viruses that has more than 200 members. According the HPV Research Group at the University of Washington, “These viruses are classified biologically (and phylogenetically) into cutaneous or mucosal types depending on whether they generally infect keratinizing or non-keratinizing epithelium. (Formal classification of individual genotypes is based on the sequence homology in the L1 region of the genome.)” Some members of this family cause warts (papillomas). These are transmitted by skin to skin contact. Other members of this family can cause cancer. At least 40 members of this virus family are thought to contribute to the development of cancer via infection from the skin or mucous membranes of an infected person. These are known as high risk types. Most HPV-caused cancers arise from an infection with types 16 or 18.

    Though there are many different types of HPV, they are not equally common. Types 6 and 11 cause 90 percent of genital warts (also called condylomata acuminata or venereal warts). Types 30, 42, 43, 45, 51, 54, 55, 70 make up the other 10 percent of genital wart cases. Types 6 and 11 also cause something called laryngeal papillomatosis, also known as recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, which is a rare disease where benign cancers form in the throat. These are NOT the strains that are generally associated with causing HPV cancers. Genital warts do NOT turn into cancer. They are, however, more contagious than the common warts one gets on the hands and feet. There are between 0.5 to 1 million new cases of HPV caused genital warts diagnosed in the US each year.

    Some strains of papilloma viruses are associated with common warts on your hands (strains 2, 7, 22) as well as plantar warts on your feet (strains 1, 2, 4, 63). A more complete table showing HPV types and disease associations can be found in Eileen Burd’s review Human Papillomavirus and Cervical Cancer (Clinical. Microbiol Rev. 2002, 16(1), 1-17. doi 10.1128/CMR.16.1.1-17.2003)

    That a virus is actually responsible for the development of skin warts was not figured out until 1907. That the HPV virus is responsible for causing a number of human cancers was not determined until 1983 by Dr. Harald zur Hauzen, a German virologist. The work arose out of studies on genital warts, which were shown to harbor papilloma viruses. Eventually it was figured out that a high percentage of cervical cancers were found to harbor specific strains of papilloma viruses. This led to a worldwide effort to examine a large number of cervical cancers for the presence of papilloma virus. in 1995 the International Biological Study on Cervical Cancer group looked at cervical cancer samples from 22 countries. HPV was found in more than nine out of every ten cervical cancer samples (93 percent), and this figure was consistent across the globe. This 93 percent figure actually turned out to be an underestimate. In 1999, a group of scientists carefully retested the samples and found that virtually all cervical cancer samples (99.7 per cent) contained the virus. This indicated that HPV infection is an important trigger for cervical cancer. This was, and remains to this day, the strongest link between HPV and the cancers it causes. More details can be found in Harald zur Hauzen’s Nobel Prize biography. He shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with two other scientists (who discovered the HIV virus) in 2008.

    HPV infections are not a new thing. It’s thought that the virus has co-evolved with humans since the days of the Neanderthals. So these viruses have been a problem since the dawn of modern man.

  • 2) How common is infection with this virus?

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    HPV infections are the most common sexually transmitted infection. More than 79 million Americans are currently infected with this virus. To put this in context, the total population of the US in 2018 was about 328 million people, so about 25 percent of the population is currently infected. In addition, about 14 million more people in the US are infected with HPV every year. That’s a huge number compared to new cases of other sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia (1.7 million), gonorrhea (556,000), or primary or secondary syphilis (about 30,000). For additional context, the number of new cases of HIV (which is not just spread via sex) is estimated to be about 38,000 per year in the U.S. About 80 percent of the US population will be infected with HPV sometime in their lifetimes.

    The probability of a woman in the US acquiring an HPV infection sometime in her life is about 85 percent; for men the likelihood is 91 percent. These numbers go up with an increase in the number of sexual partners. Immunization with the HPV vaccine prevents infection with the virus.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 90 percent of HPV infections are "cleared" by the body within two years, and this usually happens within six months. However, it is not known for certain whether the body actually gets rid of the virus altogether, or – as appears to happen in at least some women – the virus is merely suppressed to a low, undetectable level. It's possible that either scenario can occur, depending on the woman.

    It’s believed that these suppressed HPV infections can "re-activate" years later, most likely due to changes in your immune system. In addition, if you have sexual contact with a new partner, you could get a new HPV infection with a different strain of the virus.

    Reference papers:
    Molano M. et al Determinants of clearance of human papillomavirus infections in Colombian women with normal cytology: a population-based, 5-year follow-up study. Am J Epidemiol 2003;158(5):486–94. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwg171.

    Franco EL et al Epidemiology of acquisition and clearance of cervical human papillomavirus infection in women from a high-risk area for cervical cancer. J Infect Dis 1999;180(5):1415–23. doi: 10.1086/315086.

    Ho GY et al. Persistent genital human papillomavirus infection as a risk factor for persistent cervical dysplasia. J Natl Cancer Inst 1995;87(18):1365–71. doi: 10.1093/jnci/87.18.1365.

    About 40% of pregnant women in the US have an HPV infection, and HPV could be detected in 10% of placentas. Only 7% of neonates had HPV at birth, and no infection persisted at 6 months.
    Khayargoli, P.et al JAMA Pediatr. Published online May 22, 2023. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2023.1283

  • 3) What types of cancer does this virus cause?

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    HPV infection is associated with six different types of cancer. Both men and women can get cancer of the oropharynx (the back of the throat as well as the tonsils and base of the tongue) as well as the anus/rectum following HPV infections. Men can also get penile cancer from HPV, and women can develop cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers from the virus.

    A new report suggests that cancers of the vocal cords are also caused by HPV in both men and women, but I am awaiting confirmation of this initial observation. The research found that 10 out of 10 patients with vocal cord tumors were all positive for cancer-causing strains of HPV, and these patients were all under the age of 30, and 3 were 10 to 19! Bayan et al Glottic Carcinoma in Young Patients. Annals of Otology, Rhinology & Laryngology, 2019; 128 (3_suppl): 25S DOI: 10.1177/0003489418818852

    According to the National Cancer Institute, the HPV virus is believed to be responsible for about 70% of cervical cancers, 65 percent of vaginal cancers, 50 percent of vulvar cancers, 35 percent of penile cancers, 95 percent of anal cancers, and 70 percent of oropharyngeal (back of the throat, tonsil, and base of the tongue) cancers. The cellular types of these cancers include carcinomas of the cervix and squamous cell carcinomas of the vagina, vulva, penis, anus, rectum, and oropharynx.

    Data from the CDC indicates that in 2015, oropharyngeal cancers made up only 14% of all HPV-cancers in women. The most prevalent HPV-cancer in women is cervical cancer (48%), followed by anal cancers (18%), vulval cancers (16%), and vaginal cancers (3%). Contrast this with men, where oropharyngeal cancers made up 82% of all HPV-cancers in men, followed by anal cancers (12%) and penile cancers (6%).

    Worldwide, high risk HPV strains (6/11/16/18/31/33/45/52/58) are thought to cause about 90 percent of cancers of the tissues mentioned above. HPV-caused cancers account for about 5 percent of all cancers worldwide. Broken down by gender, that’s about 8.6% of women and 0.8% of men. The reason for the disparity is the large number of cervical cancer cases in women in less developed countries.

    de Martel et al Worldwide burden of cancer attributable to HPV by site, country and HPV type
    Int J Cancer. 2017 Aug 15; 141(4): 664–670, doi: 10.1002/ijc.30716

  • 4) How do you catch HPV, and how do you figure out who you might have caught this from?

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    HPV is primarily spread by intimate skin to skin contact. You can be exposed to the virus by having oral, vaginal, or anal sexual contact with someone who is already infected. The virus can be transmitted by penetrative as well as non-penetrative sexual contact (genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, oral-anal). Since many people have no symptoms of infection, it’s pretty common to become infected and to not even realize that has happened. It’s also thought to be possible to spread the virus within your body by touch (again, intimate skin to skin contact).

    Most people get infected in their late teens or early 20s. Some actually get infected younger, which is why the vaccine is recommended starting at ages 9-12.

    If you’ve had multiple sex partners, it’s pretty much impossible to determine who you may have caught it from. Keep in mind that it can take years, and often many decades, for cancers that are caused by HPV to develop. The median age at which most of the HPV-caused cancers are diagnosed is the early sixties for men and women (except for cervical cancer, which is diagnosed much younger). The person who passed the virus on to you may have eliminated it themselves (as most people do), and you were just unfortunate to be with them while they were still infectious. This is why it’s not worthwhile to ask a past partner to get tested. They could easily show no trace of the virus, but still could have passed it along to you. Or not.

    It’s not worth your time to wonder how you came to be infected by HPV. Unless you’ve only had a single partner, you are unlikely to ever figure this out.

    Most people will never develop symptoms of the infection as their immune systems will successfully eliminate the virus. However, some infected individuals will go on to develop either genital or anal warts, or to develop oral, anal, vaginal, vulval, penile, or cervical cancers. Risk factors for catching HPV infections include an early age of first sexual intercourse, an increasing number of sexual partners, smoking, and having a compromised immune system (see details below).

    There should be no shame in getting an HPV infection. They’re incredibly common and are the most common sexually transmitted infection. The probability of a woman in the US acquiring an HPV infection sometime in her life is about 85 percent; for men the likelihood is 91 percent. These numbers go up with an increase in the number of sexual partners.

    Immunization with the HPV vaccine prevents infection from nine different strains of the virus (seven of which cause cancer, and two of which cause genital warts).

    More than 79 million Americans are currently infected with this virus. To put this in context, the total population of the US in 2018 was about 328 million people, so about 25 percent of the population is currently infected. In addition, about 14 million more people in the US are infected with HPV every year. That’s a huge number compared to new cases of other sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia (1.7 million), gonorrhea (556,000), or primary or secondary syphilis (about 30,000). For additional context, the number of new cases of HIV (which is not just spread via sex) is estimated to be about 38,000 per year in the U.S.

    Source: CDC Genital HPV Infection - Fact Sheet

    It had been thought that the hands can also transmit a genital, oral, or anal HPV infection. However, a new report in 2019 showed that the hands are actually a very unlikely source of viral transmission.

    Malagon et al Hand-to-genital and genital-to-genital transmission of human papillomaviruses between male and female sexual partners (HITCH): a prospective cohort study. The Lancet Infectious Diseases Feb. 2019

    People’s sexual practices, and how they are associated with HPV cancers, has been investigated in detail. The report concluded, “The number of oral sex partners remains a strong risk factor for HPV‐OPC; however, timing and intensity of oral sex are novel independent risk factors. These behaviors suggest additional nuances of how and why some individuals develop HPV‐OPC.”

    You can read more about this study in this article from the NY Times: How Our Sex Habits May Affect Our HPV and Cancer Risk from Jan. 2021.

    Drake, V.E. Timing, number, and type of sexual partners associated with risk of oropharyngeal cancer. Cancer https://doi.org/10.1002/cncr.33346.

    In addition to causing cancer, HPV infections MAY be associated with other issues. One of these is Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SSNHL). The mechanism behind this is unclear, and could be due to direct infection of the inner ear, or reactivation of a latent viral infection at that location. This hypothesis that HPV infection may be associated with SSHNL is based on comparison of diagnostic codes in patients known to be infected with HPV and those who are not. The data is NOT based on direct physical exams. There was about a 37% increase in SSHNL in patients with HPV infections compared to those that did not have infections. Further studies will be needed to confirm that there is a real connection here.

    Chen TYT, et al. Association between human papillomavirus infection and sudden sensorineural hearing loss: A nationwide population-based cohort study. EClinicalMedicine. 2022;47:101402. doi:10.1016/j.eclinm.2022.101402

  • 5) HPV-caused cancers account for what percentage of all human cancers?

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    Worldwide, about 16 percent of all cancers are caused by infectious diseases (primarily the bacteria Helicobacter pylori as well as HPV and hepatitis B and C viruses). Since HPV causes about 28 percent of all infection-related cancers globally, this means that about 5 percent of all cancers worldwide. Broken down by gender, that’s about 8.6% of women and 0.8% of men. The reason for the disparity is the large number of cervical cancer cases developed by women in poorer nations.

    By the way, HPV is not the only virus that causes cancers in people. There are many other, including hepatitis B and C, Merkel cell polyomavirus, and Epstein Barr virus. The types of cancers caused by these viruses differ, as do the organs affected. You can read a good review about them if interested posted by Cancer Quest at the Winship Cancer Institute: Viruses and Cancer.

    de Martel et al Worldwide burden of cancer attributable to HPV by site, country and HPV type
    Int J Cancer. 2017 Aug 15; 141(4): 664–670, doi: 10.1002/ijc.30716

    HPV is thought to cause more than one million cancer cases worldwide each year.
    Schiffman, M. et al Carcinogenic human papillomavirus infection. Nature Reviews Disease Primers volume 2, Article number: 16086 (2016).

    A higher proportion of cancer cases are due to infection in lower income countries, particularly in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Women in these areas often do not get Pap tests that would show the possible development of cervical pre-cancers at an early stage, and these women are also much less likely to get the HPV vaccine that prevents infection with this cancer-causing virus.

  • 6) How many people in the US get these cancers every year?

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    Let’s start by looking at the previous numbers from the US in from 1999 to 2015, courtesy of the CDC:

    There were a total of 43,371 HPV-associated cancers per year in 2015 in the US (not all of these are caused by HPV, as explained below). Let’s break that down by gender:

    There were 24,432 cases of HPV-associated cancers in women, including 11,788 cases of cervical cancer, 3,890 cases of vulvar cancer, 809 cases of vaginal cancer, 4,507 cases of anal cancer, and 3,438 cases of oropharyngeal cancer.

    There were 18,939 cases of HPV-associated cancers in men, including 1,224 cases of penile cancer, 2,236 cases of anal cancer, and 15,479 cases of oropharyngeal cancer.

    The American Cancer Society projects 53,000 cases of head and neck cancers (about 70% of which are caused by HPV) will be diagnosed in the United States this year, and an estimated 10,860 people will die of these cancers.

    The most common HPV cancer in women is cervical cancer, but in men, it’s oropharyngeal cancer. Note that of the two HPV associated cancers that both men and women can get, the ratios are highly skewed. Anal cancers in women outnumber those in men by 2 to 1. Oropharyngeal cancers in men outnumber those in women by 4.5 to 1.

    Now not all of these HPV-associated cancers are actually caused by HPV. That’s because not every cancer case for these tissues is tested to look for the presence of HPV. However, studies have been done to estimate the percentage of these cancers that are believed to be caused by the virus. These percentages are 99% for cervical cancer, 90% for anal cancer, 75% for vaginal cancer, 70% for vulvar cancer, 60% for penile cancer, and 70% oropharyngeal cancer.

    So let’s redo the math to find out how many cancer cases can really be attributed to HPV:
    Cervical: 11,788 cases x 0.99 = 11,670
    Anal: [4,507 cases (women) + 2,236 cases (men)] x 0.90 = 6,069
    Vaginal: 809 cases x 0.75 = 607
    Vulvar: 3,890 x 0.70 = 2723
    Penile: 1,224 x 0.60 = 734
    Oropharyngeal: [3,438 cases (women) + 15,479 cases (men)] x 0.70 = 13,242

    Total number: 35,045 cases would actually be caused by HPV. That represents about 81% of the cases across all tissue types.

    Now let’s look at the latest numbers published by the CDC in 2019. As you can see below, the numbers have hardly changed at all from 1999-2015. Still about 35,000 cases per year of HPV-caused cancers in the US. The numbers here are broken out into three groups:
    Those caused by HPV strains targeted by the current HPV vaccine Gardasil 9 (9vHPV-targeted)
    Those caused by other HPV strains that are NOT targeted by the current HPV vaccine Gardasil 9 (Other HPV)
    Those that have causes other than HPV (HPV-negative)
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  • 7) What are the risk factors for catching HPV?

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    The risk factors for catching HPV infections include:

    Number of sexual partners. The more sexual partners you have, the more likely you are to contract a genital HPV infection. Having sex with a partner who has had multiple sex partners also increases your risk. A recent study showed that HPV prevalence was higher in people who have had more than five sexual partners in their lifetime. Rositch, A.F. et al Importance of lifetime sexual history on the prevalence of genital human papillomavirus among unvaccinated adults in NHANES: implications for adult HPV vaccination [published online July 25, 2020]. Clin Infect Dis. doi:10.1093/cid/ciaa1050

    Age. Common warts occur mostly in children. Genital warts occur most often in adolescents and young adults.

    Weakened immune systems. People who have weakened immune systems are at greater risk of HPV infections. Immune systems can be weakened by HIV/AIDS or by immune system-suppressing drugs used after organ transplants.

    Damaged skin. Areas of skin that have been punctured or opened are more prone to develop common warts.

    Personal contact. Touching someone's warts or not wearing protection before contacting surfaces that have been exposed to HPV — such as public showers or swimming pools — might increase your risk of HPV infection.

    Source: Mayo Clinic

    Risk factors specific for oral HPV infections include:

    Oral sex. The prevalence of oral HPV infection was increased in subjects who had experience with oral sex as compared to those who did not.
    Number of oral sex partners. Those with more oral sex partners had a higher incidence rate for HPV infection.
    Smoking. This was significantly associated with oral HPV infections in both men and women

    Source: See Shigeshi and Sugiyama Risk Factors for Oral Human Papillomavirus Infection in Healthy Individuals: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis J Clin Med Res. 2016 Oct; 8(10): 721–729. doi: 10.14740/jocmr2545w

    People’s sexual practices, and how they are associated with HPV cancers, has been investigated in detail. The report concluded, “The number of oral sex partners remains a strong risk factor for HPV‐OPC; however, timing and intensity of oral sex are novel independent risk factors. These behaviors suggest additional nuances of how and why some individuals develop HPV‐OPC.”

    You can read more about this study in this article from the NY Times: How Our Sex Habits May Affect Our HPV and Cancer Risk from Jan. 2021.

    Drake, V.E. Timing, number, and type of sexual partners associated with risk of oropharyngeal cancer. Cancer https://doi.org/10.1002/cncr.33346.
  • 8) Is there a way to prevent infection with HPV?

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    Yes. There are two ways to prevent infection with HPV. One is to be immunized against the virus with the safe and effective Gardasil 9 HPV vaccine. Note, however, that this will only prevent infection with any of the nine strains that the current vaccine (Gardasil 9) protects against. It does not offer protection against other HPV strains. Click here to learn more about the vaccine.

    The other way is to practice safe sex, which means having protected sex (oral, vaginal, and anal) with anyone who might harbor the virus. This means using condoms, dental dams, or other types of barrier protection (see the paragraph below for a recent innovation in this category). However, this does not bring your risk to zero, because the virus can be transmitted by skin to skin contact. For example, HPV can infect areas that are not covered by a condom—so condoms may not fully protect against infection. Simple contact with the shaft of the penis or the labia may be sufficient to transfer the virus.

    One new innovation that is designed to overcome the limitations of dental dams won FDA approval in May, 2022: vanilla flavored latex panties that allow one to have oral sex (at least on the female) and still have protection from getting an HPV infection. Details can be found in this article F.D.A. Authorizes Underwear to Protect Against S.T.I.s During Oral Sex, and if you’re interested in going down this route, check out the website for the company that sells these, Lorals.

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  • 9) If you’re infected with a cancer-causing strain of HPV, does this mean you will definitely get cancer?

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    No. In fact the vast majority of people infected will NOT get cancer. Less than 1 percent of people infected with a cancer causing strain of HPV will go on to develop cancer. Most peoples immune systems will prevent this from happening. For example, a study of college-age women showed that approximately 70 percent of women with any strain of HPV infection became HPV negative within 1 year and as many as 91% of them became HPV negative within 2 years, with a median duration of infection of 8 months. When they focused in on the most prevalent cancer causing strain, HPV 16, the 2 year clearance rate was still a very high 72 percent.

    If your immune system does not fight off the infection with HPV, researchers believe that it can take between 10 and 30 years from the time of initial HPV infection until a tumor forms. For women, even if severely abnormal cells are seen on the cervix during a Pap smear (a condition called cervical intraepithelial neoplasia 3, or CIN3), these do not always lead to cancer. The percentage of CIN3 lesions that progress to invasive cervical cancer has been estimated to be 50% or less.

    HPV is a very common sexually transmitted infection of the anogenital tract and oral cavity/oropharynx. More than 80% of individuals in the United States have been exposed to the virus by age 45 years, and oral HPV infection is the presumed precursor to HPV-positive cancer. People usually acquire oral HPV infection through sexual exposure, and the incidence varies widely by population and depending on sexual norms (particularly oral and anal sex).

    The annual incidence of acquiring an HPV infection is estimated at approximately 4% to 12% among healthy individuals. Approximately 90% of these infections clear within 2 years, although a subset does have a persistent infection.

    At any given time, the prevalence of having an oncogenic HPV infection (that is, infection with a strain that is known to be capable of causing cancer) is approximately 400 per 10,000 (about 4%), whereas the lifetime risk for an HPV-positive cancer is 37 per 10,000 (about 0.37%). What this means is that only about 10% of people who get potentially cancer causing HPV infections will actually go on to develop cancer. Even the highest-risk group (men aged 50-59 years) has an 8% oncogenic oral HPV prevalence rate at any given time, but only a 0.7% lifetime risk for developing cancer. This says that the virus is really not very efficient at causing oral cancer.

    Inglehjart RC et al. HPV knowledge gaps and information seeking by oral cancer patients. Oral Oncol. 2016;63:23-29.

    Young adult cancer survivors are at increased risk of developing HPV-caused cancers. Researchers found that these survivors had a 70% increased risk for any HPV-caused cancer, and an even higher risk (117%) of developing oropharyngeal cancers, cancer of the mouth and throat. Hispanic AYA survivors were at a higher risk of developing cervical HPV-related cancersthan other AYA survivors and the general population.

  • 10) How many people are newly infected with HPV each year in the US?

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    HPV infection is not a nationally reportable condition, so this number has to be estimated. The NCI and the CDC put the number of new genital HPV infections at 14 million new cases per year. Unlike other sexually transmitted infections, most people infected with HPV will never realize that they’ve been infected, as few will have any symptoms.

  • 11) Do some types of HPV cause genital warts?

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    Yes they do. Genital warts usually appear as a small bump or a group of bumps in the genital area. In men, genital warts may be found on the scrotum, on the shaft of the penis, and in and around the tip of the penis. In women, genital warts may be found on the vulva, in the vagina, and on the cervix. In both men and women, warts can be found in the groin and in and around the anus. Oral sex can result in warts around the mouth, in the mouth, on the tongue or gums, and in the throat.

    How long does it take for these warts to appear following infection? They may appear in as short a time as a few weeks, in a few months, or years following infection. This variable time frame can make it difficult, if not impossible, to tell who you caught the infection from.

    A study done from 2000 to 2005 (before the HPV vaccine was available) showed that the highest incidence of genital warts in both men and women was between the ages of 20 and 24. Slightly less than 1% of the people examined were found to have genital warts. For women, 63% of the warts were on the vulva, and 21% were on the cervix.

    Note that the strains of HPV that cause genital warts are DIFFERENT from the ones that cause cancer. The most common HPV strains that cause genital warts in both women and men are 6 and 11, whereas the most common cancer-causing strains are 16 and 18. Both the original Gardasil vaccine as well as the newer Gardasil 9 version provide protection against all four of these strains. That’s because the vaccine was designed to protect those who are immunized with it against both genital warts and cancer. Gardasil 9 also protects against an additional five cancer-causing strains (31, 33, 45, 52, and 58) of HPV.

    Source: Camenga et al Incidence of genital warts in adolescents and young adults in an integrated health care delivery system in the United States before human papillomavirus vaccine recommendations. Sex Transm Dis. 2013 Jul;40(7):534-8. doi: 10.1097/OLQ.0b013e3182953ce0.

    While genital warts are caused by certain wart causing strains of HPV, an analysis of these warts indicated that they are sometimes co-infected with multiple strains of HPV, including cancer causing strains. In one study of surgically removed anogenital warts, cancer causing HPV types were found in 35% of patients. The prevalence of HPV infection with a single type was 88.4, 9.0% for two types, and 2.6% for three types.

    Al-Awadhi et al Association of HPV genotypes with external anogenital warts: a cross sectional study. BMC Infectious Diseases (2019) 19:375 https://doi.org/10.1186/s12879-019-4005-4

    Genital warts are not as serious a medical condition as cancer, but they are indeed problematic for patients. For example, they can lead to sexual dysfunction in women, as reviewed here:

    Adeli et al. Sexual dysfunction in women with genital warts: a systematic review. BMC Women's Health volume 22, Article number: 516 (2022) FREE article

  • 12) Is the HPV virus very efficient at causing either genital warts or cancer?

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    It’s very inefficient. In one study Less than 1% of people screened for genital warts had them, although this number (as well as the study itself) doesn’t tell us what percentage of the people examined were actually infected with the virus. But given how high a percentage of the population is infected with HPV, the virus is not very efficient in causing genital warts. That’s because more than 79 million Americans are currently infected with one or more strains of HPV. To put this in context, the total population of the US in 2018 was about 328 million people, so about 25 percent of the population is currently infected. In addition, about 14 million more people in the US are infected with HPV every year. About 80 percent of the US population will be infected with HPV sometime in their lifetimes. The probability of a woman in the US acquiring an HPV infection sometime in her life is about 85 percent; for men the likelihood is 91 percent.

    Source: Camenga et al Incidence of genital warts in adolescents and young adults in an integrated health care delivery system in the United States before human papillomavirus vaccine recommendations. Sex Transm Dis. 2013 Jul;40(7):534-8. doi: 10.1097/OLQ.0b013e3182953ce0.

    The vast majority of people infected with HPV will NOT get cancer. Less than 1 percent of people infected with a cancer causing strain of HPV will go on to develop cancer. Most peoples immune systems will prevent this from happening. For example, a study of college-age women showed that approximately 70 percent of women with any strain of HPV infection became HPV negative within 1 year and as many as 91 percent of them became HPV negative within 2 years, with a median duration of infection of 8 months. When they focused in on the most prevalent cancer causing strain, HPV 16, the 2 year clearance rate was still a very high 72 percent.

    Source: Ho GY et al Natural history of cervicovaginal papillomavirus infection in young women N Engl J Med. 1998 Feb 12;338(7):423-8.

  • 13) How can I tell if I’ve been infected with HPV?

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    There’s no easy way to do this because there’s no single exam (such as a blood test) that can be used to determine your HPV status at multiple body sites. There are tests that can be done on specific tissues that develop HPV-associated cancers (i.e. the mouth, anus, vagina, vulva, and penis), but these are simply not done routinely.

    For many years, the only screening tests recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) for HPV-caused cancers was the Pap test for cervical malignancies. A Pap test looks for changes in cervical cells that indicate that the cells might become cancerous, or already are. A Pap test is NOT the same as an HPV test. The Pap test has been the gold standard for detecting precancerous cells of the cervix (that may develop into cancer) for many years. Recently, however, it has been proposed that the Pap test can be replaced by molecular tests that screen for the presence of the HPV virus. The USPSTF issued its latest recommendations for cervical cancer screening, which now say women 30 and older can drop the traditional Pap tests every 3 years in favor of testing for human papillomavirus (HPV) every 5 years, if they choose to.

    Here are the details:
    Women 21-29 should receive a Pap test every 3 years to check the cervical lining for abnormal cells.
    Women 30-65 should receive either a pap test every 3 years, an HPV test every 5 years, or a combination of both every 5 years.
    Healthy women younger than 21 most likely don't need any screening.
    Women older than 65 who've had normal testing in recent prior years likely don't need any screening.
    Healthy women who've had a hysterectomy with cervix removal likely do not need screening.

    One question that comes up often: are there any tests to determine if a person has oral HPV?

    As the article below indicates, now there is one. It's a PCR test that looks for the presence of any of 14 different strains of HPV.
    What's unclear to me is exactly when this test will be used. It doesn't detect HPV-caused cancers, just HPV infections. A positive test means you have oral HPV, but it may be an infection you will clear in the near future, or maybe not. And even if it's not an infection that will be cleared, only a tiny fraction of people with oral HPV go on to actually develop cancer. Most people never do (see FAQ 12 above).
    Essentially if you test positive, it gives your doc a signal that they should keep an eye on you and look for signs of oral cancer. This may lead to the finding of cancerous lesions, but it can also lead to additional biopsies that will not be cancer. Overall, this may be helpful in some situations, but I'm not sure how and when this test will be used.


  • 14) If you’re already infected with one strain of HPV, can you be infected with another?

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    The short answer is yes. A study was done looking at women who were referred for HPV testing when they were having cells from their cervixes examined. Twenty four percent of the women were positive for HPV infection, and 19 percent of those infected with one strain also harbored a second strain. The overall percentage of women who were infected with at least two strains of HPV was 4.6 percent. "Women who harbor multiple infections are at higher risk for cervical lesions than those ever infected with one type only and should be followed more closely," said Eduardo L. Franco, Dr.PH., professor of epidemiology and oncology, and director, division of cancer epidemiology at McGill University. The research raises the possibility that in women with multiple infections, their immune systems may be less robust in clearing the infections. HPV 16, the most well known cancer causing strain, was found in 9 percent and 14 of single and multiple HPV infections, respectively.

  • 15) Can the vaccine prevent you from being infected by another strain if you’re already infected with HPV?

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    In theory the vaccine should prevent someone who is already infected with HPV from being infected by a second strain, providing that the second strain is one of the nine strains that the Gardail 9 vaccine works against. Those who received the earlier vaccines (Cervarix or Gardasil) that only protected against two strains (16 and 18) or four strains (16, 18, 6, and 11), respectively, could also get some benefit from the most recent vaccine, Gardasil 9, that provides protection from an additional seven strains or five strains, respectively. Keep in mind that the most prevalent cancer causing strains (16 and 18) are found in the vast majority of HPV-caused cancers. For example, WHO reports that 70 percent of cervical cancers are linked to these two strains. One study estimated that the Gardasil 9 vaccine may prevent an additional 4.2 percent to 18.3 percent of cancers compared to the earlier vaccine targeted at just strains 16 and 18. Thus, there are diminishing returns in getting the newest vaccine if you’ve already been immunized with the earlier ones. In addition, your insurer may not pay for a second series of vaccine shots if they’re already covered an earlier version of the vaccine. Check with your doctor if you are concerned about this.

  • 16) Can HPV-associated oral cancers have other causes besides the virus?

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    Yes they can, but the vast majority of these cancers are caused by infection with HPV. According to the American Cancer Society, cases of oral and oropharyngeal cancers used to be primarily associated with smoking and/or and drinking alcohol, but as the rates of those behaviors has declined, the incidence of oropharyngeal cancers has actually increased. There are other risk factors that increase your likelihood of developing oropharyngeal cancers. These include certain genetic diseases (e.g. Fanconi anemia and dyskeratosis congenital) as well as poor nutrition and a compromised immune system. As with many cancers, some people will have none of these risk factors and will still develop these cancers, and others may have a number of these risk factors as part of their health history, and they will never develop cancer.

    The bottom line is that HPV infection causes about 70% of cases of oropharyngeal cancer.

  • 17) Since HPV can cause oral cancer, can the infection be spread by kissing?

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    It is generally believed that this is possible. A 2009 study showed that the risk of contracting oral HPV increased with the number of partners who engaged in open mouth kissing (but had not engaged in oral sex). A similar finding arose out of a 2012 study. However, while many believe that while the virus can be shared via kissing, this is not an efficient route for transmission. Oral HPV cancers are generally thought to arise from viral infections that are passed by oral sex. Note: it is the virus in the mouth (or other parts of the body) that is contagious, NOT the oral cancers caused by HPV.

    See Shigeshi and Sugiyama Risk Factors for Oral Human Papillomavirus Infection in Healthy Individuals: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis J Clin Med Res. 2016 Oct; 8(10): 721–729. doi: 10.14740/jocmr2545w

    People’s sexual practices, and how they are associated with HPV cancers, has been investigated in detail. The report concluded, “The number of oral sex partners remains a strong risk factor for HPV‐OPC; however, timing and intensity of oral sex are novel independent risk factors. These behaviors suggest additional nuances of how and why some individuals develop HPV‐OPC.”
    Deep kissing was also associated with increased risk. Those who had 10 or more deep-kissing partners were more than twice as likely to have an HPV-related cancer as those who had none or one.

    You can read more about this study in this article from the NY Times: How Our Sex Habits May Affect Our HPV and Cancer Risk from Jan. 2021.

    Drake, V.E. Timing, number, and type of sexual partners associated with risk of oropharyngeal cancer. Cancer https://doi.org/10.1002/cncr.33346.
  • 18) How does HPV cause cancer?

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    This is a complex issue, but I’ll give a short answer. There are thought to be two ways this happens. In one pathway, once you are infected with HPV, and if your body does not successfully fight off the infection, the DNA contained in the HPV virus (a member of the papilloma family of DNA viruses) integrates itself into your DNA. Put another way, the genetic material of the virus (its DNA) becomes integrated into and part of your own genetic material (your DNA). At some point the integrated virus begins to express the viral proteins E6 and E7, and it’s these oncoproteins (proteins that cause cancer) that help transform the cell from normal to cancerous. Those seeking greater details can look here.

    The second way for the virus to cause cancer is for it to replicate itself inside the cell, but without integration. In these cases the virus appears to be mutated, leading to aberrant expression of he E6 and E7 proteins. There are also examples of cancers where the virus is both integrated and replicating. Which path the virus takes to cause cancer can vary between tissues. For example, viral integration seems to be more frequent in cervical cancer than it is in oropharyngeal cancer. It also appears to vary by viral strain. For example, in a series of cervical cancer samples examined, 76% of HPV16-positive samples have integrated HPV, whereas integration is evident in 100% HPV18-positive samples. Both paths can be taken as well i.e. the virus can be both integrated and episomal in the same tumor.

    McBride AA, Warburton A (2017). The role of integration in oncogenic progression of HPV- associated cancers. PLoS Pathog 13(4): e1006211. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1006211
    FREE download

    In a separate study, researchers found that HPV’s E6 induces chromosomal instability due to polar chromosomes caused by E6AP-dependent degradation of the mitotic kinesin CENP-E.
    Cosper, P.F. et al HPV16 E6 induces chromosomal instability due to polar chromosomes caused by E6AP-dependent degradation of the mitotic kinesin CENP-E. PNAS 120 (14) e2216700120

    In yet another study, researchers used tissue organoids to detect a new cell type in HPV infected cells. These calls are called HPV-induced differentiation dissonant epithelial nonconventional (HIDDEN) cells. These cells were further detected in lab studies in patient-derived cervical and tonsillar organoids, in patient biopsies of HPV+ cervical pre-cancers, and in HPV+ head and neck cancers. A deeper analysis showed that a transcription factor (ELF3) is upregulated by HPV and is a crucial component for the conservation of the HIDDEN compartment, thus making ELF3 a potential therapeutic target for combatting HPV cancers.
    Bedard, M et al Single cell transcriptomic analysis of HPV16-infected epithelium identifies a keratinocyte subpopulation implicated in cancer. Nature Communications April 8, 2023

    In a separate study, researchers analyzed 75 patients with HPV16+ oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC). They found that HPV16-human fusion products indicating viral integration in 29 (39%) OSCC. In the remaining tumors (61%) only episome-derived PCR products were detected. When comparing OSCC with or without an integration-derived fusion product, they did not find significant differences in the mean RNA expression of viral genes E2, E6 and E7 or the viral copy numbers per cell, nor did the RNA expression of the HPV-disrupted genes differ from either group of OSCC. They concluded that constitutive, rather than a high level, of expression of oncogene transcripts appears to be required in HPV-related OSCC.

    Olthof et al Comprehensive Analysis of HPV16 Integration in OSCC Reveals No Significant Impact of Physical Status on Viral Oncogene and Virally Disrupted Human Gene Expression. PLOS ONE February 2014 | Volume 9 | Issue 2. FREE download

    In contrast, Parfenov et al noted that tumors that do and do not have HPV integration display distinct gene expression profiles and DNA methylation patterns.

    Parfenov Characterization of HPV and host genome interactions in primary head and neck cancers. PNAS (2014) 111, 15544–15549. FREE download.

    Finally, in a fourth study of 186 HPV+ head and neck cancer patients, viral integration only was found in 43% of the cancers sampled. The remainder were either episomal expression of the viral proteins, or mixed (both integrated and episomal). However, no statistically significant difference was found in disease specific survival between patients with HPV-positive integrated vs. extrachromosomal/mixed forms of the virus.

    Vojtechova et al Analysis of the integration of human papillomaviruses in head and neck tumours in relation to patients’ prognosis. Int. J. Cancer: 138, 386–395 (2016) FREE download

    Bottom line: HPV can cause H&N cancers whether or not it integrates into your DNA.

    The E6 and E7 proteins serve as primary targets in the development of a number of clinical therapies aimed at treating HPV-caused cancers. As of 2018 none of these potential treatments have been approved by the FDA for use in patients with HPV-caused cancers.

    Another study looked at exactly where HPV integrates into the DNA of women who are later diagnosed with cervical cancer. Specific hot-spots (i.e. locations where integration takes place) were identified in profiling DNA from women diagnosed with cervical cancer. Zheng Hu et al Genome-wide Profiling of HPV Integration in Cervical Cancer Identifies Clustered Genomic Hot Spots and a Potential Microhomology-Mediated Integration Mechanism. Nature Genetics (2015) Feb;47(2):158-63. doi: 10.1038/ng.3178. Epub 2015 Jan 12.

    Another pathway that may lead to cancer following HPV integration is through changes in gene expression and chromatin states in the region near to the integration site. Significant changes in CTCF (a transcription factor) binding pattern and increases in chromatin accessibility occur exclusively within 100 kbp of HPV integration sites. The chromatin changes co-occur with out-sized changes in transcription and alternative splicing of local genes. Analysis of The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) HPV+ tumors indicates that HPV integration upregulates genes which have significantly higher essentiality scores compared to randomly selected upregulated genes from the same tumors. Thus, the introduction of a new CTCF binding site due to HPV integration reorganizes chromatin state and upregulates genes essential for tumor viability in some HPV+ tumors. These findings emphasize a newly recognized role of HPV integration in oncogenesis.
    Karimzadeh, M. et al Human papillomavirus integration transforms chromatin to drive oncogenesis. Genome Biology volume 24, Article number: 142 (2023) FREE download.
  • 19) Can HPV infections be transmitted via blood or other body fluids?

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    This is a bit of a complex issue, as explained here. This mode of transmission has not a big concern in the biomedical community. For example, blood donations are not currently screened for HPV, and the American Red Cross (and other Red Cross societies) do not prevent HPV-positive individuals from donating blood.

    Having said that, a paper was recently published suggesting that blood transmission may be possible for papilloma viruses. The study came about after an observation made in 2005 where blood samples from a group of HIV-positive children were also found to be positive for HPV. Because of the age of the children (the usual sexual transmission mode of viral transfer), the researchers wondered if the virus could have come from blood transfusions, which some of the children had undergone. Researchers showed using two different animal models that the virus could be transmitted via blood. Whether or not this holds true for human papilloma viruses remains to be determined. Cladel, N.M. et al, Papillomavirus can be transmitted through the blood and produce infections in blood recipients: Evidence from two animal models. Emerging Microbes & Infections (2019). DOI: 10.1080/22221751.2019.1637072.

    Infection through other body fluids like sperm or saliva is considered to be rather unlikely. However, the virus may spread during oral sex if mucous membranes in the mouth touch areas of skin of your partner that have been infected with HPV.

    Transmission from the mother to baby via nursing has also been looked at in a couple of small studies. In one study it appeared that the virus might be transmitted via milk in a very small percentage of cases, but it appears to be rare. Milk from lactating women in Australia was examined in a separate study and a few samples were found to be HPV positive. Breast feeding of babies is still encouraged by virtually all organizations, so this is something that women should not be overly concerned about.

    About 40% of pregnant women in the US have an HPV infection, and HPV could be detected in 10% of placentas. Only 7% of neonates had HPV at birth, and no infection persisted at 6 months.
    Khayargoli, P.et al JAMA Pediatr. Published online May 22, 2023. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2023.1283

  • 20) Can mothers transmit genital HPV infections to their unborn children? Are there any adverse events associated with being pregnant and having HPV? What is respiratory recurrent papillomatosis (RRP)?

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    Can mothers transmit genital HPV infections to their unborn children, or during birth?

    Yes. While HPV infections are common among pregnant women; perinatal transmission to infants is infrequent, a study results suggest. Researchers recruited women who were at least 18 years old and no more than 14 weeks pregnant. They were recruited about 1,000 participants from 3 academic hospitals in Canada. Most participants (84.9%) had not received an HPV vaccine. Those women who were found to be HPV-positive samples collected during their first trimester were tested agin in the third trimester. Swabs and biopsies were used to test for HPV on placental samples of all participants. Researchers also tested for HPV in children at birth, after 3 months, and after 6 months.

    At the time of recruitment, 40.3% of women had an HPV infection. Of the 422 women who tested positive, 280 had at least 1 high-risk (cancer-causing) strain; 190 women were coinfected with at least 2 genotypes. HPV was found in 10.7% of placentas (95% CI, 8.8%-12.9%), but only 3.9% of biopsies on the fetal side under the amniotic membrane were positive for HPV.
    Neonatal HPV detection (at birth and/or at 3 months) was 7.2% (95% CI, 5.0%-10.3%)

    The most frequent site of infection was the conjunctiva (3.2%; 95% CI, 1.8%-5.6%), the mouth (2.9%; 95% CI, 1.6%-5.2%), the genital area (2.7%; 95% CI, 1.4%-4.9%), and the pharynx (0.8%; 95% CI, 0.2%-2.5%)
    Importantly, all HPV detected in children at the time of birth cleared before age 6 months. HPV-53, HPV-62, HPV-16, and HPV-89 were the most commonly detected genotypes.72.2% of the women who were HPV-positive in their first trimester were found to be still positive in the third trimester. Researchers plan to collect follow-up data for 5 years to determine if the HPV found in newborns has been cleared, or if some virus remained undetected in basal cells and can reactivate later in life.
    Source: Khayargoli P, Niyibizi J, Mayrand MH, et al. Human Papillomavirus transmission and persistence in pregnant women and neonates. JAMA Pediatr. Published online May 22, 2023. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2023.1283

    It also appears that babies can acquire oral HPV infections from their moms, likely during birth. These HPV infection can persist for months or years in a significant portion of these newborns, increasing their long-term risk of developing cancer or other health problems, experts said. Researchers found that 23% of 331 children delivered in Finland had an oral HPV infection at birth, likely contracted from their mothers. The most likely route of infection is via the birth canal during delivery, but all possible routes are have not yet been fully established. According to one of the authors, ”Our study provides evidence that a mother carrying HPV in her mouth could transmit her offspring at early age -- i.e. mouth-to-mouth transmission.”. "Another possibility is the transmission during the delivery from the maternal genital area to newborn, which route is supported by several studies." It's also possible that HPV could be acquired during pregnancy, with the infection passing from mother to child in utero. Mom’s that have been successfully vaccinated against HPV cannot pass the virus on to their babies.

    Source: Stina Syrjanen, DDS, PhD, head, oral pathology and oral radiology, University of Turku's Institute of Dentistry, Finland; Sean O'Leary, MD, infectious disease specialist, Children's Hospital Colorado, Aurora; Emerging Infectious Diseases, March 2021.

    Infection with certain strains of HPV can lead to a rare disease known as recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP), which can be diagnosed in both children (juvenile onset) and adults (where it may be acquired via sexual transmission, and not present since birth). It is associated with HPV strains 6 and 11 (these are the virus types that cause genital warts, not cancer). Children born with RRP typically develop symptoms of hoarseness and can develop a raspy voice, a chronic cough, and severe breathing problems during their toddler years. It’s treated by surgeries to remove the HPV lesions from the throat, and because it’s virally caused, these lesions can recur. The incidence of this disease is quite rare; only a small fraction of those infected with the virus will develop this condition. The mechanism of viral transmission is unclear, although it has been suggested it occurs in the birth canal since those born via Cesarean section appear to have a lower incidence of the disease. However, Cesarean birth does not prevent the baby from picking up the infection from the mother. There is some evidence that HPV can be transmitted to the fetus across the placenta, but others have been unable to find this mode of transmission. Kids born to moms who have been vaccinated with Gardasil 9 should not develop RRP as the two strains that cause it, 6 and 11, are targeted by the vaccine. This is yet another reason for girls to get immunized against this virus.

    The HPV vaccine has been tested as a treatment for RRP. The idea is that the vaccine will prevent ongoing infection of cells by the virus, thereby cutting down on the number of surgeries needed. To date, only small scale studies have been done, but the vaccines appear to be working in these trials. According to the article, “The number of surgical procedures per month was significantly reduced after HPV vaccination compared with before vaccination (estimated mean, 0.06 vs 0.35). The mean intersurgical interval increased from 7.02 months (range, 0.30-45 months) before to 34.45 months (2.71-82 months) after HPV vaccination.” See Rosenberg, T. et al Therapeutic Use of the Human Papillomavirus Vaccine on Recurrent Respiratory Papillomatosis: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Infect Dis. 2019 Mar 15;219(7):1016-1025. doi: 10.1093/infdis/jiy616.

    In a small retrospective study, only n = 2 (15.4%) of the n = 13 vaccinated patients developed a recurrence of the disease after a mean time of 54.9 months (SD: 9.5 months). All patients who were not vaccinated (n = 11; 100%) developed a relapse after a mean time of 12.3 months (SD: 9.72 months). Mauz et al. HPV vaccination as preventive approach for recurrent respiratory papillomatosis - a 22-year retrospective clinical analysis. BMC Infectious Diseases (2018) 18:343 https://doi.org/10.1186/s12879-018-3260-0 FREE download.

    In Australia, which has a very high rate of HPV vaccine usage, the incidence of RRP (or more specifically juvenile onset RRP) was impacted by the vaccine. Rates declined from 0.16 per 100000 in 2012 to 0.02 per 100000 in 2016 (P = .034). Novakovic, D. et al. A Prospective Study of the Incidence of Juvenile-Onset Recurrent Respiratory Papillomatosis After Implementation of a National HPV Vaccination Program. J Infect Dis. 2018 Jan 4;217(2):208-212. doi: 10.1093/infdis/jix498.

    In another study from 2023, researchers tested an anti-HPV 11 and 16 therapeutic vaccine made in a gorilla adenovirus vector against RRP. Vaccination resulted in clinical benefit in a phase I trial in half of patients, and response was associated with a tumor microenvironment that could promote HPV-specific T cell responses.

    Norberg et al The tumor microenvironment state associates with response to HPV therapeutic vaccination in patients with respiratory papillomatosis. Science Translational Medicine 25 Oct 2023 Vol 15, Issue 719 DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.adj0740

    For those of you looking for a more detailed look at RRP, I can recommend this recent review: Benedict, J.J. and Derkay, C.S. Recurrent respiratory papillomatosis: A 2020 perspective. Laryngoscope Investigative Otolaryngology 6, 2, 340-345, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1002/lio2.54

    Are there any adverse events associated with being pregnant and having HPV?

    In a meta analysis that looked at a large number of other studies, the authors found a consistent and significant association between HPV and preterm birth and preterm premature rupture of membranes. They also reported that HPV “may also be associated with intrauterine growth restriction, low birth weight, and fetal death, but findings are limited by suboptimal control of biases.”

    Niyibizi, J. et al Association Between Maternal Human Papillomavirus Infection and Adverse Pregnancy Outcomes: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. The Journal of Infectious Diseases, jiaa054, https://doi.org/10.1093/infdis/jiaa054

  • 21) Does being infected with HPV interfere with a woman’s ability to get pregnant?

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    No. According to the CDC, “Having HPV does not make it harder for a woman to get pregnant or carry a pregnancy to term. However, some of the pre-cancers or cancers that HPV can cause, and the treatments needed to treat them, might lower a woman’s ability to get pregnant or have an uncomplicated delivery. Treatments are available for the conditions caused by HPV, but not for the virus itself.

    Following up on this issue, a study looked at whether or not there were any effects of infection with high risk HPV strains 16 or 18 on the ability of women to carry their unborn babies full term.

    “A new study, published online Sept. 15, 2021 in the journal JAMA Network Open, links the two strains to preterm birth. Researchers found that of 899 pregnant women, those infected with the strains throughout pregnancy were almost four times more likely to deliver prematurely as uninfected women were. Premature births occur before the 37th week of pregnancy.

    The findings do not prove cause and effect, said senior researcher Helen Trottier, an assistant professor at the University of Montreal in Canada. There could be other explanations for the link between high-risk HPV and preterm birth, according to Trottier. Her team accounted for as many alternative explanations as they could — including women's smoking and drinking habits, their age and education level, and whether they had pregnancy-related high blood pressure or diabetes.”

    But persistent infection with HPV-16/18 was still, itself, a risk factor for preterm delivery.

    About 40% of pregnant women in the US have an HPV infection, and HPV could be detected in 10% of placentas. Only 7% of neonates had HPV at birth, and no infection persisted at 6 months.
    Khayargoli, P.et al JAMA Pediatr. Published online May 22, 2023. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2023.1283

  • 22) Do people infected with HPV make antibodies against the virus?

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    Only about half of patients with a known HPV infection at any site will develop antibodies to HPV. There is no reliable test for prior HPV infection if the virus has been cleared from the original site of infection.

    Reference: Pytynia KB et al Epidemiology of HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer Oral Oncol. 2014 May ; 50(5): 380–386. doi:10.1016/j.oraloncology.2013.12.019.

    Neutralizing antibodies against HPV can be protective, but these are triggered only after infection and cannot eliminate virus-infected cells. Reference: Roden, RBS and Stern, PL Opportunities and challenges for human papillomavirus vaccination in cancer Nature Reviews Cancer doi:10.1038/nrc.2018.13

  • 23) Should I take an at-home HPV test to find out if I am positive for the virus?

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    No. There is really no good reason to do this, because the information that you get is not really actionable. What will you do differently armed with this information? Since there is no systemic test (i.e. one that would cover your entire body), you are going to have to choose just one particular tissue for each test (in this case, that would be vagina, vulva, penis, anus, or oral cavity). I do not believe you can do a cervical HPV test at home (SEE BELOW). Say you pick an HPV test for the oral cavity. Let’s say you take the test, and it shows that you (along with an estimated 79 million other Americans) are HPV positive. Even if you are positive for one of the cancer-causing strains of HPV, the likelihood of you actually developing an HPV-caused cancer is less than 1 in 100. With odds that low, why create something to worry about? And it’s easy to get a false negative result (a test says you don’t have an HPV infection, when you actually do) because HPV is hard to detect in the mouth for a number of reasons.

    The only situation where it is worthwhile to be tested for HPV at present is in the context of looking for cervical pre-cancers in women, and this should be done in consultation with your doctor. For more information, go to the Screening for HPV Cancers page on this website, and look at the answer to the question Is screening recommended to find HPV-caused cancers?

  • 24) Are gay and bisexual men more likely to develop anal cancer than heterosexual men?

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    Yes. According to the CDC, gay and bisexual men are 17 times more likely to develop anal cancer – also caused by HPV – than men who only have sex with women. Anal cancers are also more commonly found in men who are HIV positive, presumably due to having a weakened immune system. An estimated 61% of HIV-negative and 93% of HIV-positive gay and bisexual men have anal HPV infections, compared to 50% or less of heterosexual men. More information can be found here at the National LGBT Cancer Network.

  • 25) Do lesbian women have an increased incidence of cervical and oropharyngeal cancers compared to heterosexual women?

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    Lesbians may be slightly more likely to develop cervical cancer, in part because they are less likely to be vaccinated against HPV. The 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth examined responses of women and girls between the ages of 15 and 25 who were asked about HPV vaccination. Of the over 3,200 participants involved, 84 percent reported having heard of the HPV vaccine, and of this informed population, only 28.5 percent had actually initiated the series. The study cannot say why lesbians have higher rates of cervical cancer, but the proposed explanation has to do with decreased cervical cancer screening with Pap tests as well as lower rates of HPV vaccination.
    HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers are >3 times more common in lesbian and bisexual women than in heterosexual women. This is likely due to the fact that transmission of HPV from women during oral sex is much easier than transmission of the virus from men during oral sex.

    Gay men are also much more likely to develop anal cancers than straight men.

    Saunders, C., Meads, C., Abel, G., Lyratzopoulos, G. (2017) Associations Between Sexual Orientation and Overall and Site-Specific Diagnosis of Cancer: Evidence From Two National Patient Surveys in England.Journal of Clinical Oncology. 35(32), 3654-3661. DOI: 10.1200/JCO.2017.72.5465 (FREE download)

    Stacks Image 417
    Odds ratios of specific cancer site diagnosis by lesbian or bisexual orientation among women with cancer, adjusted for age (Cancer Patient Experience Survey). Diagnoses represented with gold circles indicate fewer than six women with this diagnosis reporting lesbian or bisexual sexual identity (CPES); these diagnoses were included in the analysis model in the same way as other cancers, however the gold circles highlight that these results are based on relatively small numbers of cases.
  • 26) Can you get anal cancer if you don’t engage in anal sex?

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    Anal sex is a risk factor for developing anal cancer. According to the HPV and Anal Cancer Foundation: “People who engage in anal sex are at a higher risk of developing anal cancer because they are at a higher risk of skin-to-skin contact in the anal region and contracting an anal HPV infection. Because HPV is a skin virus that is transmitted very easily, anal intimacy is not necessary to contract anal HPV or to develop anal cancer. In addition, men who are uncircumcised are at a higher risk of developing a persistent HPV infection.

  • 27) Is there an association between HPV infection and prostate cancer?

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    Maybe. There have been several meta-analysis studies suggesting that infection with HPV 16 is associated with an increased risk of developing prostate cancer. However, more work needs to be done to establish if this is really the case.

    Yin B et al Association between human papillomavirus and prostate cancer: A meta-analysis Oncol Lett. 2017 Aug; 14(2): 1855–1865. doi: 10.3892/ol.2017.6367

    Russo GI et al Human papillomavirus and risk of prostate cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Aging Male. 2018 Mar 23:1-7. doi: 10.1080/13685538.2018.1455178.

    Morka, N. Prostate cancer and the human papilloma virus: causative association, role of vaccines, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prostate Cancer and Prostatic Diseases (2021)
  • 28) Exactly what types of head and neck cancers does an HPV infection cause, and what percentage of head and neck cancers are caused by HPV?

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    The standard answer to this question is that HPV causes squamous cell carcinomas (SquamousCC). The vast majority of head and neck cancers, whether or not they are HPV positive, are SquamousCC. However, I came across a pathology paper that indicated that a very small percentage of head and neck cancers (again, whether HPV positive or negative) are actually small cell carcinomas (SmallCC). Only a very small number of head and neck cancers have ever been shown to be SmallCC, and the outcomes for patients with HPV+ types of this cancer are much worse than for those with HPV+ SquamousCC.

    Squamous cells are thin, flat cells that are found in the tissue that forms the surface of the skin (the epidermis, which is the outermost layer of skin). The vast majority of head and neck cancers are SquamousCC, but the majority of SquamousCC are NOT head and neck cancers, but skin cancers. These skin cancers are NOT caused by HPV but by UV damage to the DNA in the skin cells.

    Reference: Allison DB et al Cancer Cytopathology 2018. Characteristics of HPV-Related Small Cell Carcinoma of the Oropharynx. DOI: 10.1002/cncy.22078

    What percentage of head and neck cancers are caused by HPV? Data from the CDC (see the math in FAQ 6 above) indicates that about 13,500 cases of oropharyngeal cancer are caused by HPV each year.
    Data from Cancer.Net indicates that head and neck cancer accounts for about 4% of all cancers in the United States, and that in 2020 an estimated 65,630 people (48,200 men and 17,430 women) will develop head and neck cancer. If we do the math, we see that 13,500/65,630 or about 21% of these patients will have cancers caused by HPV.

    Here’s a graphic showing the anatomical locations of HPV-caused oropharyngeal cancers (from the CDC). A small number of anatomical sites make up most of the HPV-caused oropharyngeal cancers, including the tonsils, the soft palate, and the base of the tongue.
    Stacks Image 409
    Note: HPV has also been found in about 32% of patients who have been diagnosed with sinonasal squamous cell carcinoma (SNSCC), according to a study published online Dec. 30, 2019 issue of Cancer. https://doi.org/10.1002/cncr.32679

    Jamie R. Oliver, from the New York University School of Medicine in New York City, and colleagues used the National Cancer Data Base (2010 to 2016) to identify 6,458 SNSCC cases and assess patterns of HPV testing and its association with survival in patients with SNSCC. Only 23.6 percent of patients (1,523) were tested for HPV, 62.1 percent of whom had advanced-stage tumors. HPV-positive SNSCC accounted for 31.5 percent (447 of 1,418 cases) of the final study cohort. Patients that had HPV-positive SNSCC were younger (median age, 60 years versus 65 years) and were more likely to have high-grade tumors (55.3 versus 41.7 percent) and tumors attributed to the nasal cavity (62.2 versus 44.0 percent). HPV-positive SNSCC was associated with significantly improved overall survival (hazard ratio, 0.45), including in propensity score-matched (hazard ratio, 0.61) analyses that controlled for clinicodemographic and treatment factors. This survival advantage matches up with oropharyngeal HPV-caused tumors, because patients with these have a much greater overall survival rate than those with HPV- oropharyngeal cancers.
  • 29) People who are diagnosed with cervical, vaginal, vulval, penile, oral, or anal cancers must have gotten them from sex, right?

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    Wrong. While HPV-caused cancers represent the majority of cases of the cancers named above, the incidence is not 100 percent. Studies have been done to estimate the percentage of these cancers that are believed to be caused by the virus. These percentages are 90 to 99% for cervical cancer, 90% for anal cancer, 75% for vaginal cancer, 70% for vulvar cancer, 60% for penile cancer, and 70% oropharyngeal cancer.

    Put another way, people can and do develop cancers in these tissues that have other causes besides HPV. Therefore, no single cancer case can be attributed to being caused by HPV acquired during sexual intimacy unless it has specifically been tested for the presence of the virus.

    People diagnosed with HPV-caused oropharyngeal cancers have a much greater two year survival rate than those with HPV negative oropharyngeal cancers (92.0% versus 45.8%, respectively). Upon adjustment for age, sex, smoking history, and TNM stage, Zhu and fellow researchers found that HPV positivity was associated with significant improvements in OS in oropharyngeal cancer patients. This was not true, however, in patients with non-oropharyngeal HNSCC.

    Interestingly, there were no statistically significant differences in OS between HPV-positive and HPV-negative patients with cancers outside the oropharynx. In patients with non-OP HNSCCS, two-year OS was similar (72.6% versus 64.3%, respectively; P=0.31).
  • 30) Is there any good news you can share regarding HPV-caused cancers?

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    It’s hard to come up with good news regarding cancer, but consider this. The risk of dying of head and neck cancer is about 70 percent lower if your tumor is HPV positive compared to those tumors that are HPV negative. Put another way, HPV positive head and neck cancers respond better to treatment than those that are HPV negative, resulting in improved levels of both progression-free and disease-free survival.

    Reference: O’Rorke et al Human papillomavirus related head and neck cancer survival: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Oral Oncol. 2012 Dec;48(12):1191-201. doi: 10.1016/j.oraloncology.2012.06.019. Epub 2012 Jul 28.

    Along these same lines, your chances of surviving cervical cancer are much greater if it is HPV+ than HPV-. Interestingly, a number of cervical cancers that were initially thought to be HPV- were actually found on deeper inspection to be HPV+. This is important because women with HPV-positive cancers had a 43% lower excess mortality over 5 years than women whose cancers were HPV-.

    Lei J, et al "Human papillomavirus infection determines prognosis in cervical cancer" J Clin Oncol 2022; DOI: 10.1200/JCO.21.01930.

    One other preliminary piece of good news. It looks like a new drug in clinical trials, Tipapkinogen Sovacivec, is capable of clearing HPV infections in women with early stage cervical precancers. This molecule fits the definition of a therapeutic vaccine against HPV, which is distinct from the prophylactic vaccine (Gardasil 9) that is currently used to prevent HPV infections. You can read about it here.

    Here are the highlights of the study:
    Tipapkinogen sovacivec completely resolves CIN 3 lesions significantly more frequently than placebo. It completely clears HPV16 viral DNA associated with CIN 2/3 significantly more often than placebo. It has significantly greater complete resolution rates of CIN 2/3 regardless of HR HPV type. It offers 36% complete resolution or partial response of CIN2/3 associated with all HR HPV types.

    Here is how it is supposed to work:
    “The modified vaccinia virus Ankara (MVA) is a highly attenuated replication-deficient strain of vaccinia virus used widely as a gene-delivery system of vaccines. TS has inserted genes that code for three proteins: human cytokine IL-2, and modified forms of HPV 16 E6 and E7 proteins that have been rendered non oncogenic. MVA by itself contributes to the immune reaction by the induction of an Interferon-alpha response [11]. Upon sub-cutaneous injection, TS infects the surrounding cells. The expressed HPV16 E6 and E7 proteins are then processed and presented by dendritic cells which are co-activated by the viral infection. These dendritic cells migrate to the draining lymph-node and present E6 and E7 peptides to the naive T-cells present in the lymph-node, which should allow development of a targeted cell mediated immune response.”

    Harper, D. et al. The efficacy and safety of Tipapkinogen Sovacivec therapeutic HPV vaccine in cervical intraepithelial neoplasia grades 2 and 3: Randomized controlled phase II trial with 2.5 years of follow-up. Gynecological Oncology 2019. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygyno.2019.03.250

    You can find the paper for FREE here.

  • 31) What’s the most unusual disease associated with HPV infection?

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    Epidermodysplasia verruciformis (EV), also known as tree man syndrome (because the extremities of people afflicted with this resemble tree limbs). According to Wikipedia, “ EV is an extremely rare autosomal recessive hereditary skin disorder associated with a high risk of skin cancer. It is characterized by abnormal susceptibility to human papillomaviruses (HPVs) of the skin. The resulting uncontrolled HPV infections result in the growth of scaly macules and papules, particularly on the hands and feet. It is typically associated with HPV types 5 and 8, which are found in about 80% of the normal population as asymptomatic infections, although other types may also contribute. The condition usually has an onset of between the ages of one and 20, but can occasionally present in middle age. The condition is also known as Lewandowsky–Lutz dysplasia, named after the physicians who first documented it, Felix Lewandowsky and Wilhelm Lutz. The cause of the condition is an inactivating PH mutation in either the EVER1 or EVER2 genes, which are located adjacent to one another on chromosome 17.”

    Only about 200 cases of this disease have ever been diagnosed, illustrating just how rare it is. These growths can be painful if they extend below the skin and irritate the nerves there. The EVER genes belong to a novel gene family, a transmembrane channel-like (TMC) family, and are responsible for properly functioning zinc homeostasis. About 75% of cases of EV are due to the EVER gene mutations referred to above, but they can also be associated with the alterations or over expression of the RHOH, MST1, CORO1A, or IL-7 genes. EV can also occur in immunodeficiency cases.

    Kalinska-Bienias et al The EVER genes – the genetic etiology of carcinogenesis in epidermodysplasia verruciformis and a possible role in non-epidermodysplasia verruciformis patients. Advances Dermatol Alergol. 2016 Apr; 33(2): 75–80.
    doi: 10.5114/ada.2016.59145

    The following strains of HPV are thought to be capable of causing epidermodysplasia verruciformis: 5,8,9,12,14,15,17,19,20,21,22,23,24,25,36,37, 38, 46, 47, 49, 75, 76, 80, 92, 93, 96. Source: Graham, S. The human papillomavirus replication cycle, and its links to cancer progression: a comprehensive review. Clinical Science (2017) 131 2201–2221 https://doi.org/10.1042/CS20160786 FREE download.

    The photo below provides a good illustration of what people with this disease can look like:

    Stacks Image 364

  • 32) With six different types of cancer already associated with HPV infections, will cancer of the vocal cords, esophogeal cancer, and prostate cancer join this list?

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    Vocal Cord Cancers
    It’s certainly possible. A 2019 report from the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) described finding HPV infections in all tested samples of vocal-cord cancer from 10 patients who had been diagnosed at age 30 or under. Most of them were non-smokers. The story is very similar to the one for oropharyngeal cancers, which used to be primarily associated with smoking, but are now more frequently associated with infection with high-risk HPV strains. The vocal cord cancers also used to be correlated with smoking, but non-smokers now make up nearly half of the vocal cord cancers. “Of 353 patients treated for vocal-cord cancer during the entire period, none of the 112 treated from 1990 to mid-2004 were age 30 or younger. But 11 of the 241 patients treated from 2004 to 2018 were 30 or younger – 3 were age 10 to 19 – and only 3 of the 11 were smokers. Put another way, about 1% of the total patients with HP-positive vocal cord tumors were under 20, with another 4% of these patients in the 20-29 years old age group. Analysis of tissue samples from the tumors of 10 of the 11 younger patients revealed high-risk strains of HPV in all of them.”

    The median age for being diagnosed with most HPV cancers (except cervical cancer) is in the late 50’s to early/mid 60’s. For laryngeal cancers (of which vocal cord tumors are a subset), the median age for diagnosis is 65, which fits in the other HPV caused cancers. It’s very unusual to have HPV associated cancers in people so young. On the other hand, the incidence of laryngeal cancer has been falling for decades. This, as with oropharyngeal cancers, mostly reflects a decrease in smoking. It may be that this decrease has allowed this subset of HPV+ cancers to be revealed.

    “The male to female rate ratio for laryngeal cancers was substantially higher in the glottic region (9.2 among whites and 11.8 among blacks) than in other subsites (approx. 3-5 in both races).” According to Yang et al in Differences in the sex ratio of laryngeal cancer incidence rates by anatomic subsite. J Clin Epidemiol. 1989;42(8):755-8.

    This preponderance of male to female cancers is similar to what is seen with oropharyngeal cancers.

    “The authors note that these high-risk-HPV-associated vocal-cord cancers greatly resemble recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP), a benign condition caused by common, low-risk strains of HPV. Benign RRP of the vocal cords has been a well-known HPV disease for more than a century, and it is very remarkable that there is now an HPV malignancy that looks so similar, creating diagnostic and therapeutic confusion,” says Steven Zeitels, the Eugene B. Casey Professor of Laryngeal Surgery at Harvard Medical School. “It should be noted that these HPV-associated vocal-cord carcinomas are NOT a malignant degeneration of the benign disease.”

    The report appears in a special supplement on innovations in laryngeal surgery that accompanies the March 2019 issue of Annals of Otology, Rhinology and Laryngology.

    Finally, a meta-analysis of previous studies showed “HPV infection, especially infection due to the high-risk type HPV-16, was found to be significantly associated with the risk of laryngeal squamous cell carcinoma.” In a majority of these studies, the predominant strains of HPV found in the tumors were high-risk i.e. cancer causing strains. See
    Li et al Human Papillomavirus Infection and Laryngeal Cancer Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta- Analysis. The Journal of Infectious Diseases 2013;207:479–88
    Esophageal Cancers
    HPV has been shown in a study to increase the risk of developing esophageal cancer 3 fold. However, only 35% of the tumors studied were positive for HPV, so that means HPV cannot be the only cause. As the authors put it: “Uncertainty around the aetiological role of HPV in OSCC is due largely to the small number and scale of appropriately designed studies. Our meta-analysis of these studies suggests that HPV increases the risk of OSCC three-fold. This study provides the strongest evidence to date of an HPV-OSCC association.”

    Liyanage, S. et al The Aetiological Role of Human Papillomavirus in Oesophageal Squamous Cell Carcinoma: A Meta-Analysis. PLOS one 2013. FREE download.

    Prostate Cancers
    The possibility that some cases of prostate cancer may also result from HPV infection is also being looked into. “Investigators at the University of New South Wales, Australia reviewed results from 26 previous studies on HPVs and their links to prostate cancer. They assessed the existing evidence using a common set of nine causal criteria, including the strength and consistency with which HPVs were associated with prostate cancers and whether HPVs were detected in prostate tissues that later went on to develop cancer. The authors found that the high risk HPV types 16 and 18, which cause the majority of cervical cancers, have been identified in normal, benign and malignant prostate tissues. In several case control studies, the prevalence of high risk HPV DNA, which indicates the presence of cancer-causing types, was significantly higher in prostate cancers compared to normal and benign prostate controls. More specifically, recent studies found that 231 of 1071 prostate cancers (21.6%) were HPV positive, whereas only 74 of 1103 benign prostate controls (6.7%) were HPV positive.

    See this article for details.

    In a separate study, researchers looked at the incidence of HPV infections in prostate cancer patients in Taiwan as well as a large group of matched controls. There were 5137 patients with prostate cancer and 15,411 patients as controls. Multiple logistic regression analyses were carried out to scrutinize the association of prostate cancer with HPV infections while taking into account age, monthly income category, geographic location and urbanization level of the patient’s residence as well as hyperlipidemia, diabetes, hypertension and chronic prostatitis, tobacco use disorder, and alcohol abuse/alcohol dependence syndrome. Out of all sampled patients, 1812 (8.8%) had a prior diagnosis of HPV infections. HPV infections were diagnosed in 743 (14.5%) of prostate cancer patients and 1069 (6.9%) of control patients, respectively. The results from the chi-square test demonstrate that individuals with prostate cancer exhibited a significantly higher incidence rate of HPV infections than their control counterparts (p < 0.001). Furthermore, in comparison to controls, individuals with a history of HPV infections had an adjusted odds ratio of 2.321 (95% CI: 2.097~2.568) for developing prostate cancer. Notably, individuals diagnosed with chronic prostatitis were also more likely to be subsequently diagnosed with prostate cancer (adjusted odds ratio=1.586; 95% CI = 1.338~1.879), which aligns with expectations in this context. Prostate cancer appeared to be significantly associated with HPV infections.

    Yin, SH., Chung, SD., Hung, SH. et al. Association of prostate cancer with human papillomavirus infections: a case-control study. Prostate Cancer Prostatic Dis (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41391-023-00772-1
  • 33) Is there an association of infection with high-risk HPV strains and the development of cardiovascular disease (CVD)?

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    A recent report suggests there is. A study of cardiovascular disease in women from South Korea showed that infection with high-risk (cancer causing) strains of HPV were significantly associated with an increased risk of developing CVD, especially in obese individuals and those with metabolic syndrome, indicating that high-risk HPV might affect CVD risk with possible effect modification by obesity and metabolic syndrome. Note that correlation does not prove causation, and we also don’t know if this result applies to other groups aside from Korean women. Further studies we be required to figure that out. Look here to learn more about these types of cohort studies, and what their strengths and weaknesses are.

    Reference: Eun-Jeong Joo et al High-Risk Human Papillomavirus Infection and the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease in Korean Women: A Cohort Study

    Originally published in Circulation Research Feb. 2019

  • 34) I heard that a study had been done that a recent clinical trial showed that robotic surgery for oropharyngeal cancer was associated with MORE side effects than radiation treatment. What’s the story?

    Open or Close
    This was indeed the primary finding of the study, but there were a number of caveats. The data has not yet been published; what’s been presented so far was shown at a medical conference. Here’s what we know:

    The seven-year multi-center study, led by researchers at the Lawson Health Research Institute, compared robotic surgery (TORS) or radiation therapy as treatments for oropharyngeal cancer (cancer affecting the back of the throat, tonsils, soft palate and base of the tongue). Starting in 2012, researchers recruited 68 throat cancer patients at six medical centers in Australia and Canada, including the London Health Sciences Centre’s London Regional Cancer Program (note: this is in London, Ontario, Canada; it is NOT in London, England). Radiation therapy can cause side effects, and patients receiving radiation therapy often report problems swallowing, a reason that the robotic surgery option rose in popularity. Many assumed that robotic surgery was going to give a better quality of life for patients as measured by swallowing ability. This idea was tested in a randomized trial where these two treatments were tested against each other.

    Researchers discovered the radiation patients had less swallowing difficulties than the surgery group. Forty per cent of surgery participants reported mild decline in their swallowing ability compared to only 26 per cent of radiation patients. The study also found no difference in survival rates between the patients who received the robotic surgery and ones who received radiation only. So that settles the issue, right? Unfortunately, no. There are a number of caveats that prevent us from making this conclusion:
    1) the study was quite small by current standards. It will need to be tested in a much larger population of patients.
    2) the primary outcome that was measured here was swallowing ability. While this is important, the study did not look at other potentially negative outcomes that might be associated with large doses of radiation to the neck. These include the later formation of other cancers, damage to blood vessels that can lead to future strokes, and skin problems arising from the radiation.
    3) While the data indicated that there were no survival differences between the two groups, we really need to see much longer term data before we can reach that conclusion.

    It should also be noted that the robotic surgery option is only available to patients who have small oral tumors. Those that are large, or have spread to the lymph nodes in the neck, cannot be treated solely with robotic surgery. These patients may get chemotherapy and radiation, or surgery plus chemotherapy and radiation.

    There’s also a second generation TORS robot in clinical trials (phase II). It uses a single port i.e. the arms all come through one small opening, which has some theoretical and practical advantages. Data was positive in the phase II trial. You can read more about it here: Holsinger, F.C. A Next-Generation Single-Port Robotic Surgical System for Transoral Robotic Surgery: Results From Prospective Nonrandomized Clinical Trials. JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. Published online September 19, 2019. doi:10.1001/jamaoto.2019.2654. FREE download.

  • 35) Can Turkey Tail (and other mushrooms) eliminate the HPV virus from your body?

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    Not likely. I had never heard of this hypothesis and so I looked it up. The idea is apparently based on data from a single publication in an obscure medical journal. The actual name of the mushroom is Trametes versicolor, also known as Coriolus versicolor. Here’s the abstract from this paper:
    “This preliminary randomized study investigated the efficacy of medicinal mushrooms, Trametes versicolor (TV), Ganoderma lucidum (GL), and Laetiporus sulphureus (LS), on the clearance of oral human papillomavirus (HPV, serotypes 16 and 18). Among 472 patients who underwent oral swabs for gingivitis, 61 patients were positive for HPV16 or HPV18. Twenty patients were included in group 1 (LS) and 41 patients were included in group 2 (TV+GL) for 2 months. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) for HPV was performed at inclusion and after 2 months. In group 1, the clearance was equal to 5% after 2 months of treatment. In group 2, the clearance was equal to 88% (P<0.001). The detection of HPV16 or HPV18 could become relevant in routine since positivity is frequent and because a harmless and costless treatment may exist. The use of TV+GL for the clearance of oral HPV deserves further investigation.”

    We can’t conclude that Turkey Tail mushroom really had any effect on HPV clearance for the following reasons:
    1) There was no control group (i.e. people who were positive for HPV, but received no treatment at all). As a result, we don’t know what the rate of clearance is in the absence of any mushrooms. Other research has clearly demonstrated that the majority of people with HPV infections clear it without any intervention whatsoever (see FAQ9 above). Perhaps that is what is happening in group 2, and the lower rate in group 1 is because Laetiporus sulphureus actually inhibits clearance of HPV. We simply can’t tell here.

    2) Turkey Tail mushroom was not used alone in group 2, where it was combined with Ganoderma lucidum. Thus, we can’t say that any effects seen are due to the Turkey Tail alone. It could be due to the Ganoderma lucidum, or the combination of the two is required. We can’t draw any firm conclusions.

    The fact that this was reported in 2014, and no subsequent papers on the subject have been published, suggests that no real effect of the mushroom was seen, the initial report was not followed up, or it was simply not confirmable.

    Donatini, B. Control of oral human papillomavirus (HPV) by medicinal mushrooms, Trametes versicolor and Ganoderma lucidum: a preliminary clinical trial. Int J Med Mushrooms. 2014;16(5):497-8.

    More recently, a very small phase II study was published looking at whether a standardized mushroom preparation, AHCC (a proprietary, standardized extract of cultured lentinula edodes mycelia) is capable of clearing cervical HPV infections. The idea is that this supplement will stimulate their immune systems allowing them to eliminate HPV (and other) infections.

    Smith, J.A. et al AHCC® Supplementation to Support Immune Function to Clear Persistent Human Papillomavirus Infections. Front. Oncol., 22 June 2022 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fonc.2022.881902

    Here are the results and the published conclusion regarding this trial:

    Results: Fifty women with high-risk HPV were enrolled, and 41 completed the study. Fourteen (63.6%) of the 22 patients in the AHCC supplementation arm were HPV RNA/HPV DNA negative after 6 months, with 64.3% (9/14) achieving a durable response defined as being HPV RNA/HPV DNA negative 6 months off supplementation. On the placebo arm, two (10.5%) of 19 patients were HPV negative at 12 months. In the twelve placebo arm patients who elected to continue on the unblinded study, 50% (n = 6) were HPV RNA/HPV DNA negative after 6 months of AHCC supplementation. At the time of completion of the study, there were a total of 34 patients (22 blinded and 12 unblinded) who had received AHCC supplementation with an overall response rate of 58.8% that cleared HPV persistent infections. At the time of enrollment, the mean IFN-β level was 60.5 ± 37.6 pg/ml in women with confirmed persistent HPV infections. Suppression of IFN-β to less than 20 pg/ml correlated with an increase in T lymphocytes and IFN-γ and durable clearance of HPV infections in women who received AHCC supplementation.

    Conclusion: Results from this phase II study demonstrated that AHCC 3 g once daily was effective to support the host immune system to eliminate persistent HPV infections and was well tolerated with no significant adverse side effects reported. The duration of AHCC supplementation required beyond the first negative result needs more evaluation to optimize success for durable outcomes. The suppression of the IFN-β level to less than 20 pg/ml correlated with clearance of HPV infections and merits further evaluation as a clinical tool for monitoring patients with HPV infections.

    We need to wait and see what the much larger phase III trial results deliver. I remain skeptical about this compound because of the small size of the trial. One point of emphasis is that 14 out of 22 women in the trial who were on the AHCC supplement for six months then tested negative for cervical HPV. That sounds good, but after another six months off of the supplement, five of these 14 women again tested positive for HPV. This says to me that they were either not really negative for the virus, or that they managed to get reinfected again in that six month time period.
  • 36) Viruses need to bind to specific receptors on the surface of cells to gain entry. What protein(s) does HPV bind to in order to get into cells?

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    There are a number of different proteins that have been shown to bind to HPV virions, with the most prominent one being heparin sulfate proteoglycans (HSPGs). However, there are other proteins that also bind to the virions, including CyPB (PPIB), alpha 6 integrin (ITGA6), tetraspanins (TSPAN1), GFR (EGFR and FGFR2) and A2t. One group of investigators has suggested that all of these proteins may play a role in how the virus gains entry to a cell. In their study, these scientists looked at genetic variants of these various receptor proteins to determine if there were variants that may inhibit or enhance the binding and entry process. Their findings suggest that HPV receptor and associated gene variants may influence the susceptibilities to HPV type-specific infection and cervical lesion progression. If confirmed, this information might have value in cervical cancer screening and therapy.

    Zou, J. et al Variants in human papillomavirus receptor and associated genes are associated with type-specific HPV infection and lesion progression of the cervix. Oncotarget. 2016 Jun 28; 7(26): 40135–40147. Published online 2016 May 20. doi: 10.18632/oncotarget.9510. FREE download.

  • 37) What are some of the psychological issues associated with HPV infections?

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    There are a number of these issues, and they can cause serious problems. These include:
    1) fear of developing an HPV cancer
    2) damage to relationships over how one partner came to acquire an HPV infection. It is nearly impossible to tell this most of the time as you could have been infected decades before this becomes apparent.
    3) concerns about engaging in sexual relations with a new partner and spreading the virus
    4) shame about having acquired a sexually transmitted disease, even though most people will get and HPV infection sometime during their lifetime

    See this story about dealing with HPV infection-induced anxiety, as well as this collection of stories (written by both men and women) on the website of the American Sexual Health Association.

  • 38) Scientists like to develop animal models for many different diseases. Are there any animal models for HPV-driven cancers?

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    Yes. Scientists in 2019 developed a mouse model for HPV 16 caused head and neck cancers. The details about how they did this are highly technical, you can find the details in the article via the link below. Their goal was to develop a model where new drugs and other treatments could be tested.

    This was certainly not the first model system developed to study this, as the authors clearly point out. Numerous other models exist, but each brings to it some particular issues that may potentially result in cancers that aren’t a good model for human cancers. The same can be said for this study as well. These other models are listed in the graphic below, which was taken from the S4 supplementary material from this paper:

    Carper, M. et al An Immunocompetent Mouse Model of HPV16(+) Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma. Cell Reports 29, 1660–1674 November 12, 2019 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.celrep.2019.10.005 (FREE DOWNLOAD)

    Stacks Image 380
  • 39) HPV positive cancers are generally more responsive to radiation treatments than HPV negative cancers. Why is this, since HPV is what caused the cancer in the first place?

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    Stacks Image 384

    Three-year (36-month) Kaplan–Meier estimates showing overall survival versus HPV status for oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma. Figure from Schache, A.G. et al Clinical Cancer Research DOI: 10.1158/1078-0432.CCR-11-0388 Published October 2011

    The greater survival of HPV+ cancer patients is thought to be due to a process known as DNA repair, which HPV infections interfere with. From a paper on this subject:

    “Cancers associated with the human papillomavirus, including oropharyngeal, anal canal, cervical, and vulvar carcinomas, constitute about 4.5% of all solid tumors. In many cases, they can be readily cured with radiotherapy, which is the mainstay of treatment. HPV-associated cancers are more radiosensitive than HPV-negative cancers, but the mechanism of this radiosensitivity is unknown. Across all of oncology, HPV association is one of the only validated molecular biomarker of radiosensitivity. Here, we demonstrate that the HPV16 E7 oncoprotein alters DNA double-strand break repair pathways by promoting error-prone, microhomology-mediated end-joining and suppressing nonhomologous end-joining. These results characterize the molecular mechanism of this unique biomarker in cancer therapy and suggest therapeutic vulnerabilities.

    Squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs) arising from aerodigestive or anogenital epithelium that are associated with the human papillomavirus (HPV) are far more readily cured with radiation therapy than HPV-negative SCCs. The mechanism behind this increased radiosensitivity has been proposed to be secondary to defects in DNA repair, although the specific repair pathways that are disrupted have not been elucidated. To gain insight into this important biomarker of radiosensitivity, we first examined genomic patterns reflective of defects in DNA double-strand break repair, comparing HPV-associated and HPV-negative head and neck cancers (HNSCC). Compared to HPV-negative HNSCC genomes, HPV+ cases demonstrated a marked increase in the proportion of deletions with flanking microhomology, a signature associated with a backup, error-prone double-strand break repair pathway known as microhomology-mediated end-joining (MMEJ). Then, using 3 different methodologies to comprehensively profile double-strand break repair pathways in isogenic paired cell lines, we demonstrate that the HPV16 E7 oncoprotein suppresses canonical nonhomologous end-joining (NHEJ) and promotes error-prone MMEJ, providing a mechanistic rationale for the clinical radiosensitivity of these cancers.”

    Leeman, J.E. et al Human papillomavirus 16 promotes microhomology-mediated end-joining. PNAS October 22, 2019 116 (43) 21573-21579; first published October 7, 2019 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1906120116
  • 40) I’ve been diagnosed with an HPV16 caused cancer. I was also told my cancer is p16 positive. Is that the same thing as HPV16?

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    This is a complicated topic but I will try to explain it. One of the most common strains of HPV that causes cancer is strain 16, which is referred to as HPV16. However, one must be careful to distinguish between HPV16 positive cancers, and cancers (tumors) that are positive for p16. These are NOT the same things. This latter designation does NOT refer to the strain of HPV virus. It refers to a protein that serves as a marker for squamous cell carcinoma, which is the type of cancer HPV causes. Here are the technical details, but I suggest discussing this with your doctor if you want more information.

    From Wikipedia:
    “Expression of p16 is used as a prognostic biomarker for certain types of cancer. The reason for this is different types of cancer can have different effects on p16 expression: cancers that overexpress p16 are usually caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), whereas cancers in which p16 is downregulated will usually have other causes. For patients with oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma, using immunohistochemistry to detect the presence of the p16 biomarker has been shown to be the strongest indicator of disease course. Presence of the biomarker is associated with a more favorable prognosis as measured by cancer-specific survival (CSS), recurrence-free survival (RFS), locoregional control (LRC), as well as other measurements.”

    "p16 is a tumor suppressor protein that inhibits cyclin-dependent kinase 4A. As such, it is usually absent in head and neck SCC, the gene being mutated or deleted or the expression being abrogated by other mechanisms. In tumors with biologically active HPV, functional inactivation of the retinoblastoma protein (Rb) by HPV E7 protein leads to p16 overexpression because Rb normally represses p16 transcription. A strong and diffuse pattern of p16 immunostaining is considered a highly sensitive surrogate marker for the identification of HPV-driven tumors. However, it does not guarantee that a tumor is HPV-positive as other pathways may lead to p16 overexpression. In fact, studies have shown that approximately 15% to 20% of p16 positive oropharyngeal SCC cases are HPV ISH negative (ISH stands for in situ hybridization, which is a type of staining test used to examine cancer cells). However, the features of such tumors and their clinical behavior are unknown."

    Bottom line: p16 and being HPV16 positive are NOT the same thing.

    Reference (which is the source of the quote above):
    Lewis, Jr., J.S. p16 Positive Oropharyngeal Squamous Cell Carcinoma: An Entity With a Favorable Prognosis Regardless of Tumor HPV Status. Am J Surg Pathol. 2010 Aug; 34(8): 10.1097/PAS.0b013e3181e84652.
    doi: 10.1097/PAS.0b013e3181e84652 FREE download
    A new paper in 2023 looked at this same issue of the concordance, or the lack thereof, between being p16+ and/or HPV+.
    Here are the overall conclusions: “The study confirms that a substantial number of p16-positive patients are actually HPV-negative when tested for HPV DNA or RNA. Moreover, proportions of p16-positive patients who are actually HPV-negative differ significantly by geographic region, with the highest discordant rates in areas with the lowest HPV-attributable fractions (proportions of patients with oropharyngeal cancer caused by HPV).
    We also report that discordant patients had prognoses that were significantly worse than that in patients with p16+/HPV+ oropharyngeal cancer, but significantly better than that in patients with p16–/HPV– oropharyngeal cancer.”

    The study found that for the one in ten of patients who have discordant HPV results, they saw significantly worsening outcomes compared to those who tested negative in both tests.

    In those cases, 5-year overall survival were:
    81% among double positive tests,
    53% for patients with p16-/HPV+ test
    54% for patients with p16+/HPV- tests for patients

    Reference: Mehanna, H. et al. Prognostic implications of p16 and HPV discordance in oropharyngeal cancer (HNCIG-EPIC-OPC): a multicentre, multinational, individual patient data analysis. The Lancet Oncology Feb. 2023
    DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S1470-2045(23)00013-X (Free Download)

  • 41) Is there a website for scientists focused on therapeutic and epitome resource for human papillomaviruses?

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    Yes there is. It’s an online integrated resource called HPVomics for human papillomaviruses (HPVs), and its focus is on therapeutic regimens.

    Web resource include a few sections, including:
    A therapeutics section which contains sub-divisions i.e. siRNAs, sgRNAs (CRISPR target), antiviral peptides (AVPs) and pathway information,
    An epitome section that includes IEDB approved B- and T-cell epitopes, and predicted MHC-I binders, MHC-II binder, B-cell and CTL epitopes,

    In addition, genomes, an HPV annotation browser, and Epitope map is also provided. Further, it also supports some tools like HPV blast, ConBlock, and Physicoprop for analysis and visualization.

    HPVomics resource also provide HPV epitome prediction algorithm "HPVepi" to predict the B-cell and T-cell (MHC-I and II) epitopes.

    Here’s their paper describing this resource: A.K. and Kumarab, M. HPVomics: An integrated resource for the human papillomavirus epitome and therapeutics