Oral Cancer & HPV Vaccines
April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month. Sadly, 54,000 Americans will lose their life to this disease this year. This makes oral cancer more common than thyroid, liver, stomach, ovarian and brain cancers. The five year survival rate of oral cancer is poor, just around 60%. This means that around 40% of people diagnosed with oral cancer will not survive for more than five years. This is due in part to many oral cancers not being diagnosed until later stages and their proximity to many vital structures in the head and neck.
While tobacco and alcohol have long been risks for oral cancer, human papilloma viruses (HPV) have become the third common cause of oral cancer for the past several years. HPV is a common virus and over a hundred different varieties exist. Eight out of ten people will experience some form of this virus during their lifetime. Many are easily cleared from the body by our immune system, but some types are likely to cause oral, throat and other soft tissue cancers.
Fortunately, the HPV vaccine can prevent more than 90% of HPV-related cancers, protecting people against six different cancer types. Ideally, the vaccine is given to people between ages 9-12, as it provides the most effective immune response at those ages. It can be given to people up to age 26. The vaccine has a proven safety record and was tested in thousands of people all over the world before FDA approval was given. Like all vaccines, it is continuously monitored for safety and side effects. Nearly 200 million doses have been given with no serious safety concerns.
Signs of oral cancer include sores, colored patches or lumps in the mouth or throat that do not heal after a few weeks. Difficulty with chewing or swallowing, numbness or swelling in the mouth are also common signs. Dental professionals screen for signs of oral cancer during examinations, so see your dentist and dental hygienist regularly to help catch early signs in addition to watching your own mouth.
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