Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of low-risk and high-risk virus strains and is even said to be the most common STD. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that the majority of sexually active people will have HPV at some point of their lives and sometimes without even knowing it. Some HPV cases clear up on their own within a particular amount of time (usually within 2 years for both oncogenic and non-oncogenic HPV strains), while some strains may manifest in the presence of warts, which are indicative of low-risk HPV strains. However, high-risk HPV strains are known to cause cervical, penile, anal and oropharyngeal cancers.
If approximately 70% of cervical cancers in women are caused by HPV, HPV is a risk factor that may lead to penile cancer. Although HPV is a risk factor of cancers, it is worth noting that cancers from HPV are not common in males and penile cancer in itself is not a common disease. Penile cancer’s prevalence is the highest in countries such as Africa, Asia and South America. Particular men can develop cancers from HPV due to several risk factors such as weakened immune systems and sexual preferences. The exact cause of penile cancers has yet to be discovered, but HPV itself is not the sole risk factor behind penile cancers. In this article, we are going through several risk factors that may contribute to the serious disease.
Spreading mainly through sexual contact and close skin-to-skin contact, the two main types of HPV found in males with penile cancer are type 16 and 18. These two HPV types are said to be implicated in around 31% of penile cancers. Engaging in vaginal, anal and oral sex with an infected person is the most common ways a person can get HPV. What is more, people with HPV who do not have symptoms can still spread the disease. According to the Cancer Research UK, approximately 6 out of 10 cases of penile cancer begin through HPV infections. HPV in males are often overlooked and vaccination programs for this disease are more female-oriented due to the virus being mostly associated with women because women are more badly impacted by the disease and cost problems. However, over the recent years, the percentage of coverage of vaccinations in males have gone up. For instance, in the United States, the coverage of vaccination in males climbed up by 4.7 percentage points.
Similar to other diseases who are found in certain age groups, penile cancer is mostly discovered in people over 50 years of age. It is pretty uncommon for males under 40 to suffer from the disease and only 20% of people under 40 years old are diagnosed with it. In the United States, 68 years is the average age of diagnosis and around 80% have the minimum age of 55 when diagnosed.
Often a condition in males who are uncircumcised, phimosis is a penal condition in which foreskin cannot be pulled back or retracted. Phimosis is a risk factor for penile cancer because people with this condition are often unable to clean their penises thoroughly and end up in poor hygiene. Poor hygiene develops the likelihood of chronic inflammation, which can cause cancer.
Weakened immune systems
The immune system consists of an intricate network of cells, tissues, and organs which assist the body to combat infections and diseases. Without an immune system that works properly, people are really prone to get sick from viruses and bacteria. The following are the reasons why weakened immune systems occur:
- Primary immune deficiency or having a weak immune system since birth
- Acquired immune deficiency or catching a disease that deliberately weakens the immune system. HIV/AIDS is an example of this deficiency and people who are HIV-positive develop more risks to contract other diseases such as HPV. And since the body is less able to fight off infections, the risks for penile cancer are present.
- Autoimmune diseases. These conditions happen when our own immune systems turn their backs against us instead. Lupus and Crohn’s Disease are two of the most known examples of autoimmune diseases
- Being administered some drugs after an organ transplant can also weaken the immune system
Psoriasis is a chronic skin condition that is not contagious. You cannot get psoriasis from another person. This skin condition usually leads to a rash that is itchy and scaly and often appears on the knees, elbows, trunk and scalp. Psoriasis is treated with a drug called psoralen and light therapy or phototherapy. The treatment is known as PUVA and it is said that men who have experienced the treatment develop an increased risk for penile cancer.
Can penile cancer be prevented?
To date, there are no proven or effective ways to prevent penile cancer. However, some measures can be taken to at least lower the risks.
- Getting circumcised. Circumcision that is carried out prior to adulthood offers some protection and guarantees better hygiene. Circumcision is a small surgery to remove part of or all of the foreskin. Circumcision can ward off phimosis. In some cultures, circumcisions are part of social and religious activities. The age at which circumcisions are done play a part in how effective they are in lowering the risks of penile cancers.
- Getting HPV vaccinated. As some countries are paying more attention to males getting vaccinated for HPV, another reason why it is imperative that males are vaccinated as well is because unlike women who have PAP to determine that the cervical cancer is caused by HPV, there is no fixed and official way to diagnose HPV in men. And HPV often does not present symptoms until later. Vaccinations help lower the risk of avoiding the virus in the first place.
STDs are tricky and elusive, but it is in our power to do our best to prevent STDs. Gardasil-9 offers protection against 9 types of HPV strains. Besides HPV, people at risk for HIV should consider HIV PrEP and those who believe they have been exposed within the last 72 hours should quickly ask your local sexual health clinic for HIV PEP – right after getting a negative HIV test.