BROWN COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - It's a story Action 2 News has been following since September: the dangers of not vaccinating your children for HPV—human papillomavirus.
Wisconsin's vaccination rate is “alarmingly low” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with only 3 in 10 girls and 1 in 10 boys receiving the cancer-preventing shot.
Now, even dentists tell us: They’re warning people to get the shot, saying they've seen an increase in oral cancer patients.
New research out this month shows 1 in 9 American men is now infected with the oral form of human papillomavirus. Doctors and dentists agree with research that shows HPV has led to a 300 percent increase in oral cancer in the past 40 years.
HPV is transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact, causing cancer in several areas of the body, including the mouth, throat and sex organs. While more parents are finally signing off on pre-teen girls getting a preventive vaccine, this increase is partially attributed to boys not getting the vaccine.
Dentists tell us they're on high alert, scanning every patient for oral cancer during regular checkups and warning patients HPV can affect absolutely anyone.
“You look at the lips and the cheeks and the tongue, and we also do an extra oral exam where we check the muscles and glands and nose to make sure that there's not any enlargement there," said Steven R. Hein, DDS, at Parc Village Dental in Allouez. "And I think in dentistry because we see people more frequently often more than they see their physician, we have that opportunity to help them."
Dr. Hein says oral cancer has become the sixth-most common cancer in the U.S., with 50,000 people expected to be diagnosed this year alone.
“So that's one person dying per hour every day from oral cancer. And it's so often misdiagnosed or underdiagnosed because people don't go into their dentist, don't go into their physician and have an exam for that,” Hein told Action 2 News. “And the HPV is a big factor right now and we need to make people more aware of that."
Half of all Americans carry HPV, which is spread through intimate contact, infecting sex organs, the throat and the mouth.
"About 79 million people are infected with the human papilloma virus in their oropharynx. That doesn't mean that they're going to get the cancer. That's one of the things that we need to figure out is what's actually going to cause some people to get it and other people not to,” Dr. Robert Defatta of Defatta ENT and Facial Plastic Surgery told our affiliate.
Experts say there are several ways you can check your neck and face for lumps and bumps, but the best screen for the inside of your mouth comes from a dentist who looks at mouths every day.
“Swellings, bumps, lumps or unusual sores in the mouth, it's really important I feel that the HPV vaccine is a great thing especially for that group of kids from 14 to 24 where that's where you're seeing that,” said Dr. Hein. “It's a tough conversation, but you have to have the tough conversation."