Vaccines Help Prevent Cancer

We often think of cancer resulting from environmental factors like excess sun exposure or smoking. But, interestingly, some viruses can cause cancer too.

In 1964, researchers discovered the first virus capable of causing cancer in humans. Epstein-Barr Virus, which causes mononucleosis (commonly called “mono” or “the kissing disease”), is also the culprit behind certain forms of lymphoma, as well as some stomach cancers and cancers of the nose and throat.

Half a century later, seven viruses are now known to cause 10 to 15 percent of human cancers worldwide. In some cases, certain types of cancer are almost entirely attributed to viral infection – such is the case with anal and cervical cancers and human papillomaviruses (HPVs).

Fortunately, we already have the tools to protect against infection from several of these cancer-causing viruses: Vaccines.

Take Gardasil, a vaccine approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2006 to prevent cervical cancer caused by several strains of HPV. Gardasil is recommended for those aged 9 to 26, although actual vaccination rates are low in the U.S. According to the American Cancer Society, only 42 percent of adolescent girls had completed the series in 2015, compared to 77 percent in Australia.

The Hepatitis B vaccine also plays a role in cancer deterrence. Since the shot series became part of the standard childhood vaccine schedule in the early 1990s, there has been a 95 percent drop in Hepatitis B among young Americans. However, roughly 15 percent of liver cancers are still attributed to chronic Hepatitis B infection. In order for the U.S. to continue its progress toward eliminating Hepatitis B and its associated cancers, we must ensure routine vaccination continues.

As our knowledge expands, we may discover other viruses that play a role in cancer development, lending an even greater importance to robust vaccine programs in the next century.