The Hidden Side Effects of HPV

Dr. Vivian Wu of Henry Ford Health is a physician who specializes in otolaryngology, or head and neck cancers. The Ear, Nose, and Throat team at Henry Ford Hospital was recently ranked 23rd in the nation by U.S. News & World Report on its Best Hospitals list. Our team at the Detroit Regional Chamber Wellness Works program had the pleasure of speaking to Wu about one of her main passions— human papillomavirus (HPV)-related head and neck cancers.  

What is HPV? 

When we think of HPV, most of the time, we immediately think of the STI that infects a large population of women every year. HPV can come in several strains and infect various parts of the body regardless of the sex assigned at birth. HPV enters the body as a virus and is transferred by skin-to-skin contact, most commonly through sexual activity. Some people experience symptoms like warts, but often there are no symptoms. HPV is the most common STI, and according to Wu, about 80% of the population will contract it at some point in their life. 

How Can We Prevent HPV? 

Although it is likely that most people will experience HPV, there are things that healthcare providers are working on to help prevent further spread. According to Wu, the current HPV vaccine covers nine subtypes—the ones that most likely lead to cancer—and the chances of contracting HPV lower immensely when vaccinated. 

What is the Connection with Head, Neck and Throat Cancer? 

Wu is specifically interested in the effects HPV has on her patients because she has found that roughly 80% of her patients with tonsil cancer also have HPV. The lining of the throat makes it easy for the virus to get through and can infect and spread quickly. Wu says, “Of the new cancers caused by HPV, there are more tonsil cancers than cervical.”  

The problem is that most people think of HPV as simply an STI that can cause cervical cancer and can be discovered through your annual pap smear. However, this is not the case, as 50% of Wu’s tumor board patients are related to HPV. It is much more than STI, and that is why Wu and her team at Henry Ford Health are working to educate and destigmatize. Treatment for any cancer is difficult. It often requires surgery, chemo, and radiation. It is painful all around, especially in the head and throat. We use these parts of the body to breathe, speak, swallow, etc. The good news is that HPV-related cancer is very curable, including tonsil disease. The survival rate for HPV-positive is a 90% survival rate. 

What Does This Mean for the Vaccine? 

Because HPV goes beyond cervical cancer, it is important that we all are educated on the vaccine and where we can get it. Wu hopes that more kids will get this vaccine. Right now, only about 70% of girls receive the vaccine, and it is even less in young boys. Henry Ford Health is trying to find ways to destigmatize the STI part of it and showcase the importance of its effects in other ways. As of right now, two shots are required for ages 9-14, and three shots are required for 15 and over. To prevent exposure, the FDA is working to see if it can work in younger children and in fewer dosages. It has been proven to be safe but needs to be destigmatized. For those who missed the vaccine as children, the FDA approved the vaccine for ages 27-45.    

Further Reading