Fall 2019

The HPV-cancer connection

Deanna Teoh, M.D., explains why she’s ‘fired up’ about the HPV vaccine

In her quest to get more people vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV), Deanna Teoh, M.D., took her research straight to the place where Minnesotans meet en masse: the Minnesota State Fair. 

With philanthropic support from Minnesota Masonic Charities, the assistant professor in the Medical School’s Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Women’s Health and M Health Fairview gynecologic oncologist surveyed fairgoers about why they were, or weren’t, getting the HPV vaccine for themselves and their children. The results are revelatory.

Deanna Teoh, M.D.

What did you find out through your research?

Only about 50 percent of Minnesotans are completing the HPV vaccination series—it requires two or three doses, depending on your age or health status.

Why is it so important that people get the HPV vaccine?

It’s the only vaccine that actually prevents cancer. HPV, a sexually transmitted infection, causes six types of cancer. The HPV vaccine could prevent most of them.

How common is HPV?

Very common. About one in four Americans will get the infection at some point, and the virus causes almost 34,000 cancers every year.

So why aren’t more people getting vaccinated?

HPV is the newest vaccine, and we’re finding that people don’t fully understand what it prevents. We’re also asking parents to vaccinate their children for a disease that they won’t get until they’re older and become sexually active; we’re learning that that’s tough for parents. And, because it requires follow-up, people forget to go back to complete the vaccination series.

There seems to be growing resistance to vaccinations in general, which must affect HPV vaccination rates. 

Yes. The HPV vaccine was released in the time of social media, which is filled with emotionally based, anti-vax messages that aren’t accurate. We’ve found through our research that parents who hear both anti- and pro-vax messages actually remember the anti-vaccine messages better, because they’re so emotional.

You’re very fired up about this. What drives your passion? 

Every day in the clinic, I treat women who have these cancers. When I see them, bald and thin during treatment, yes, I get fired up to do what I can to ensure that everyone understands that there’s a safe, effective vaccine for HPV that can actually prevent these cancers.

Double-duty vaccine

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is actually a group of more than 150 related viruses, some of which are easily transmitted from person to person via sexual contact. In fact, most people become infected with some type of HPV almost immediately after becoming sexually active.

Many infections fall into the low-risk category and are easily controlled by the body’s immune system. High-risk types of HPV cause cancer—cervical, vaginal, vulvar, penile, anal, and throat cancers. Of those, head and neck cancers, more common in men than women, are now the fastest growing. Cervical cancer remains the most common HPV-associated cancer in women.

A strong proponent of HPV vaccination, the Masonic Cancer Center’s Deanna Teoh, M.D., points to cancer-preventing successes in Australia, which introduced a free vaccine for teens in 2007. Now, with high compliance rates, the country has one of the world’s lowest rates of cervical cancer.