Vaccines and Cancer Prevention

OncoLink Team
The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: March 23, 2012

An oncogenic virus (or oncovirus) is a virus that is linked to or causes cancer. These include HIV, HPV (Human Papilloma Viruses), herpes viruses, hepatitis B and C viruses, Epstein Barr Virus and retroviruses. It is estimated that 12% of cancers worldwide are caused by viruses. If these viral infections can be prevented, these cancers could be prevented as well. In the case of HPV and hepatitis, there are vaccines available to prevent infection with these viruses.

Hepatitis Vaccine

Hepatitis B virus causes liver disease which can range from a mild illness (that you may not even know you have) to a lifelong illness that can lead to serious liver damage, liver failure and/or liver cancer. Hepatitis B is spread through contact with the blood, semen, or other body fluids of an infected person. It is not spread through water, sharing of eating utensils, coughing, or sneezing. Infection can be prevented with a series of three or four vaccines given over 6 months. It is recommended for all infants, for individuals under age 18 who have not been vaccinated or anyone who is not infected or already immune and is at high risk for infection.

HPV Vaccine

Almost 100% of cervical cancers, and 85% of anal cancers, as well as many vulvar, vaginal, penile, and head and neck cancers are caused by infection with the Human Papilloma Virus or HPV. HPV is a virus that can be transmitted through vaginal, anal, and/or oral sexual activity, with skin-to-skin contact and not necessarily intercourse. Some strains of HPV cause genital warts, while others are more likely to cause cancer. Two vaccines (Cervarix and Gardasil) are available to prevent infection with certain types of HPV that can lead to cervical and other cancers. Neither vaccine will treat an HPV infection, so they are ideally given before an individual becomes sexually active. The vaccines are available for girls ages 9 through 26 and, more recently, young boys. The vaccines require three doses to be effective and has very minor side effects.


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