Cancer Center speaker informs audience on vaccine for throat cancer
A view of the UA Cancer Center located on campus on Jan. 27. The Cancer Center hosted its second "Bear Down. Beat Cancer." series talk on Thursday, discussing a vaccine that acts against a certain throat cancer.
There’s a vaccine for a certain throat cancer.
That’s what Julie Bauman, associate director of Translational Research at the UA Cancer Center, told a crowd of 20 people Thursday night at the second lecture in the “Bear Down. Beat Cancer.” lecture series hosted by the Tucson Jewish Community Center and the UA Cancer Center.
Bauman’s lecture, “Head and Neck Cancer: The Emerging Epidemic,” focused on how human papillomavirus, which is typically connected to cervical cancer, also causes oropharynx cancer located in the tonsil area.
One strain, HPV 16, causes half of cervical cancer and two-thirds of oropharynx cancer.
Bauman said this trend came to light after the rates of smoking in the U.S. went down in the 1970s.
“What you would expect to see, with a cancer thought to be from tobacco, in a population that’s smoking less, is less cancer,” Bauman said.
While lung cancer death rates did decline overall, oropharynx cases were steadily increasing. A study was done that took archived cancer samples from the 1980s to the early 2000 and tested them for HPV.
The results were clear. In 1985, if you had oropharynx cancer, only 17 percent of those cases were from HPV. In 2000, 72 percent of cases of oropharynx cancer were from HPV. Today, 80-85 percent of cases are from HPV.
“It’s been causing a whole new wave of throat cancer,” Bauman said. “This is a important time to be thinking about vaccines."
Luckily, there is a vaccine.
Elizabeth Jacobs, director of the epidemiology program at the UA, said it’s a miracle there’s a vaccine that prevents cancer.
“I was part of the unlucky percentage of people that had HPV 16 and got cervical cancer at 31 years old,” Jacobs told the crowd. “On the day of my 31st birthday, I got a call that I had cancer."
Jacobs talked about the history of vaccines, as well as the history of those against vaccination. She also refuted some of the most common arguments against vaccination.
"If you had told me that, back then, there was a vaccine for HPV and my mom didn’t get it for me for one of those anti-vaccine reasons, well, I’d be pretty angry,” Jacobs said. “Due to modern travel, all diseases are just a plane ride away. All a disease needs is to meet up with the person who hasn’t been vaccinated.”
She said with today’s FDA quality control, the level of vaccine safety is high, as is the efficiency.
“Pretty much all diseases have had a drastic drop in incidence since the introduction of their respective vaccines,” Jacobs said. “And quite frankly, there is no money to be made in vaccines, especially for rarer diseases.”
As for vaccination exemptions, Jacobs said all 50 states have at least one type of exemption, with the three main exemptions being medical, religious and personal beliefs.
“To claim medical reasons, your child has to have an immune disease or cancer and be going through chemotherapy—so very serious problems,” Jacobs said. “Barely anyone claims religious exemption because, in states where you can claim philosophical opposition, all you have to do is check the box that says ‘I don’t believe in vaccines’ and that’s it. Nobody checks up on it.”
While Bauman said the vaccine has no role in treating cancer, because once an infection is established it’s too late for the vaccine, preventing the virus will prevent the cancer.
Now, six out of 10 girls get vaccinated for HPV, while five out of 10 boys get vaccinated, Jacobs said.
“We need more legislation, but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Jacobs said. “Advocacy is needed, not just for HPV vaccines but for all vaccines.”
Both Jacobs and Bauman also focused their talks around the stigma of HPV.
Bauman said HPV infection occurs in the majority of people after their sexual debut, and then clears in two years for 90 percent of those people, though HPV 16 is much rarer.
“These viruses are a natural part of human existence,” Bauman said. “People swap HPV early and often. Once you’ve had it, you’re likely immune.”
However, Bauman said women are more likely to develop that immunity naturally. Men clear oral infections more slowly, taking five months versus a woman’s three. Additionally, last year oral HPV cancer surpassed cervical cancer, mostly due to men.
“One of my messages from this talk is that both men and women have a stake in this vaccine,” Bauman said. “HPV is an emerging epidemic and is related to behavioral risk factors shared across humanity.”
Nick Hawkes, who attend the event because a friend of his works at the UA Cancer Center, said visibility and destigmatization are important.
“It’s just in the last five or so years that we’ve realized males should be vaccinated too,” Hawkes said. “You can see how important it is.”
The next lecture will be April 6 at 6:30 p.m. at the Tucson J at 3800 E. River Rd. The topic will cover diet and cancer with Cyndi Thomson, associate director of cancer prevention and control at the UA Cancer Center.
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