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Did you know there's a vaccine to help prevent oral cancer?

Two different vaccines are currently available that help prevent cancers caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) virus, but many U.S. teens are still not getting vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Without the vaccine, teens may be at risk for getting HPV-related cancers, including oral cancer.

While the number of 13- to 17-year-old boys and girls in the U.S. receiving the vaccine has increased for the second year in a row, about 50% of teens still aren't vaccinated, according a CDC report.

"HPV vaccine prevents cancer," stated Anne Schuchat, MD, the assistant surgeon general and director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

What is HPV?

The human papillomavirus is a very common virus that affects almost 80 million people in the U.S., which is about 1 in 4 people. There are more than 150 viruses related to HPV, some of which can lead to cancer.

The virus is transmitted through intimate contact, such as by having oral, vaginal, or anal sex with someone who is infected, and it is the most common sexually transmitted infection. According to the CDC, it is so common that nearly all sexually active people will get the virus, and an infected person can pass it to another person even if they do not have any signs or symptoms.

Currently, there are no tests to find out a person's HPV status, but a woman may know if she has HPV if she has had an abnormal Pap test.

What does HPV have to do with oral cancer?

While HPV typically does not cause any health problems, it can sometimes cause cancers of the throat, mouth, tongue, and tonsils, as well cancers of the vagina, penis, or anus. There is no way to know whether someone will develop an HPV-related cancer.

About 27,000 women and men in the U.S. are diagnosed with HPV-related cancers each year, and the percentage of people with HPV-related oral cancer is growing. The rate of HPV-related oral cancer more than tripled in the past two decades in the U.S., while the incidence rates for many other types of cancers have declined, according to the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO).

"Oral cancer associated with HPV is an important emerging health problem," stated Saskia Estupiñán-Day, DDS, head of PAHO/WHO's Oral Health Program.

At the current rate, the annual number of HPV-related oral cancers among men alone is expected to exceed the number of cervical cancer cases among women by 2020.

How does the vaccine help?

The good news is that the HPV vaccine can prevent most HPV-related cancers. The HPV vaccine is administered over three separate doses.

The CDC recommends girls and boys get the vaccine beginning at ages 11 or 12, and the course of vaccinations should be completed by the time kids turn 13. However, for those who haven't received the shots, the CDC recommends women up to age 26 and men up to age 21 get vaccinated. Currently, there are two different vaccines to protect against HPV infections, Cervarix (GlaxoSmithKline) and Gardasil (Merck Sharp & Dohme).

"HPV vaccination is our best defense in stopping HPV infection in our youth and preventing HPV-related cancers in our communities," the National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Centers wrote in a statement.

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