We live in a viral world as we patiently await the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people already have chosen to be vaccinated to protect themselves from getting the virus, or, at the very least, minimize its severity.
The harsh nature of the pandemic has led to expediency in developing the vaccine, which has not been typical, historically speaking. While the COVID-19 vaccine took less than a year to develop, the mumps vaccine took four years. The polio vaccine took 13 years. The human papillomavirus (HPV), flu, and chicken pox vaccines took 17, 27, and 28 years, respectively.
Looking back in the annals of history, we have the remarkable work of Edward Jenner to thank for his development of the first vaccine. His work involved deliberately infecting a human being with a mild dose of smallpox. His rigorous trials were controlled, repeatable, and documented in his 1798 publication, “An Inquiry Into the Causes and Effects of the Variolæ Vaccinæ.”
Jenner devoted the remainder of his life advocating for the safe and effective administration of the vaccine. In 1972, routine smallpox vaccination ended in the United States, followed by the World Health Organization declaring the disease’s elimination in 1980.
Another such vaccine victory is the polio vaccine, which was first available in the United States in 1955. Thanks to its widespread use, the United States has been polio-free since 1979.
And while the United States government has said that dentists can now administer the COVID-19 vaccine, there is another vaccine that we should bring to the attention of every adult who visits our practice: the HPV vaccine.
The Rise of Oropharyngeal Cancer
The fastest-growing segment of oropharyngeal cancers is attributed to HPV. Yet it can be prevented by the Gardasil HPV nine-valent vaccine (Gardasil 9 [9vHPV]). More than 270 million doses of the Gardasil HPV vaccine have been given worldwide, including 120 million doses in the United States.
Gardasil 9 is a non-infectious recombinant vaccine prepared from virus-like particles (VLPs) of the protein of HPV types 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58.
We accept vaccination due to perceived risk. Are your patients aware of the ubiquitous nature of this virus and the fact that merely being alive and sexually active may place them at inherent risk? Many of our patients who do not possess a history of tobacco or alcohol use do not perceive a risk of oral or oropharyngeal cancer.
But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 70% of oropharyngeal cancers are related to HPV. HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer has now surpassed HPV-related cervical cancer as the leading HPV-associated cancer.
Cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States. But in the past 40 years, the number of cervical cancer cases and the number of cervical cancer deaths have decreased significantly. This decline is primarily the result of opportunistic screening practices and the HPV vaccine.
Most sexually active Americans will clear the virus without consequence. Many of them will not be aware of even having the virus. However, for persistent infection with a high-risk strain such as HPV-16, the risk for malignant transformation is real.
In 2020, the Food and Drug Administration approved an expanded indication for Gardasil 9 for the prevention of oropharyngeal and other head and neck cancers caused by HPV types 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58. The vaccine is also indicated to prevent cervical, vulvar, vaginal, anal, and penile cancer.
2021 is a year defined and impacted by an overstretched healthcare system. We have longer wait times and backlogs for cancer treatments than ever before. For a cancer that is essentially preventable by a vaccine, it is frustrating beyond words to know that many of our dental patients are unaware of its existence.
HPV is responsible for a small number of oral cancers, as the vast majority are caused by lifestyle behaviors including smoking and alcohol use—once again, preventable.
We are not powerless. Our patients do not have to fall victim to the collateral damage of COVID-19. We can encourage our patients to perform a self-examination of the oral cavity between professional visits. We can educate them about the subtle symptoms that may be associated with HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer.
A North American campaign entitled Check Your Mouth was developed to educate the public about the importance of oral self-examination. It is the result of collaboration between the Oral Cancer Foundation and Holland Healthcare, developer of the Throat Scope and TelScope.
The Throat Scope is the world’s first all-in-one illuminated tongue depressor. The TelScope is a seamless oral telehealth delivery system capable of capturing real-time high-resolution images and emailing them to an oral healthcare provider via encrypted email.
Empower your patients. Share the science that we are most fortunate to have and recognize that we can proactively fight back in a viral world.
Ms. Jones is an award-winning speaker who has given over a thousand presentations across the United States, Canada, England, Ireland, and Bermuda. She also joins the Dentistry Today’s Leaders in Continuing Education for the eleventh consecutive year. With her frank and open lecture style, focus on direct knowledge translation to practice, and educational and clinical resources, she has earned many loyal followers both nationally and internationally. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.