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More than 1 in 5 U.S. adults are infected with cancer-causing HPV, CDC report says

Vaccination during preteen or early adolescence protects against the human papillomavirus, which can cause certain cancers later in life in both men and women. (Matthew Busch for The Washington Post)

This post has been updated.

During a recent two-year period, almost 23 percent of U.S. adults ages 18 to 59 had a type of genital human papillomavirus (HPV) that put them at high risk of certain cancers, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report published Thursday.

That percentage jumped to more than 42 percent during 2013 to 2014 if any type of genital HPV was included, the CDC found. In both groups, prevalence was higher in men than in women.

“We tend to overlook the fact that 20 percent of us are carrying the virus that can cause cancer,” said Geraldine McQuillan, lead author of the report and a senior infectious-disease epidemiologist in the Division of Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys at the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics. “People really need to realize that this is a serious concern.”

This is the first data CDC has compiled on HPV rates among men. Its previous research among teen girls and women looked at far fewer strains of the virus and included a younger, narrower age range — and, perhaps because of that, found a lower prevalence of high-risk HPV.

“What we know is that cervical cancer rates have remained relatively stable, but that being said, HPV-related cancer rates have been increasing,” said Lois Ramondetta, a professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. HPV has been linked to throat, tonsil, anal, vaginal and penile cancers as well as cervical cancer. The HPV vaccine can protect people from infection.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. The CDC estimates that nearly 80 million people are infected and that about 14 million new infections occur annually among teenagers and adults. Most of these go away on their own, typically without even causing symptoms, but some HPV strains can lead to genital warts and cancer. Each year, 31,000 men and women are diagnosed with cancers caused by HPV — which, in most cases, would have been preventable with the HPV vaccine, according to the CDC.

The CDC recommends HPV vaccinations for youths ages 11 to 12 so that they are protected before potential exposure to the virus through sexual contact. Vaccination rates have been increasing, but they still lag for boys and girls.

Lingering misconceptions and fears are among the reasons for the lower use of HPV vaccination, said Electra Paskett, a cancer control researcher at Ohio State University's Comprehensive Cancer Center. Some people still think vaccination encourages youth to become promiscuous. “The way [the vaccine] was introduced in Australia and the United Kingdom was as a cancer vaccine, which is truly what it is. It is a cancer vaccine,” Paskett said.

The CDC report also addresses oral HPV infections. From 2011 to 2014, their prevalence was 7 percent among those aged 18 to 69, it found. As with genital HPV, rates were higher for men than women overall and in all racial and ethnic groups. The same disparities also were found among those groups: Asians had the lowest rates and blacks had the highest rates.

Read more:

Cancer doctors leading campaign to boost use of HPV vaccine

The startling rise in oral cancer in men, and what it says about our changing sexual habits

What men should know about cancer that spreads through oral sex