What You Need to Know About the HPV Vaccine

What You Need to Know About the HPV Vaccine

Vaccination provides effective and long-term protection against certain types of cancer.

Human papillomavirus (HPV), which is spread through vaginal, anal and oral sex, is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. The virus is ubiquitous. So prevalent, in fact, that nearly all sexually active men and women are infected at some point during their lifetime.

A 2013-2014 survey from the National Center for Health Statistics published in 2017 found that more than 42 percent of Americans ages 18 to 59 are infected with the virus.

It’s important to note that there are more than 40 types of HPV that can infect the genital area. Some infect the genitals while others affect the mouth and throat. Of these viruses, 13 can lead to certain forms of cancer, including cancers of the cervix, vagina, penis and anus as well as cancers of the head and neck. As a result, these viruses are considered high-risk strains. (Keep in mind: the HPV strains that cause skin warts around the genitals and anus typically don’t go on to cause cancer.)

Among the entire U.S. population, 23 percent have high-risk genital HPV, significantly increasing their risk of cancer, the government report revealed. When broken down by gender, high-risk strains of the virus infected 25.1 percent of men and 20.4 percent of women. There are also some racial and ethnic disparities. In general, the survey found that HPV rates were lower among the Asian population, but higher among non-Hispanic African Americans.

There’s a vaccine that prevents HPV infection and, in turn, the cancers it causes. In fact, a June 2019 review of 65 studies involving 60 million people published in The Lancet found that vaccination in wealthy nations among girls age 9 to 14 over the past eight to nine years resulted in a dramatic drop in HPV infections, genital warts and precancerous cervical lesions. The study’s findings suggest the HVP vaccine is so effective it could potentially provide herd immunity, reducing rates of HPV-related diseases—even among those who are not vaccinated.  

In 2017, nearly half of U.S. teens were fully vaccinated against HPV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unfortunately, lingering myths and misconceptions about the HPV vaccine may hinder efforts to increases vaccination rates, the American Cancer Society reports. We talked to Gretchen Homan, MD, a pediatrician with Wesley Medical Center in Wichita, to get the facts about the HPV vaccine.

What cancers are caused by HPV?
Basically, all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. In addition, 91 percent of anal cancers and 72 percent of oral cancers are caused by HPV. The virus has also been linked to penile, vaginal and vulvar cancers.

Why is the HPV vaccine so important?
We know these cancers are almost always caused by HPV, so if we can provide a vaccine for it, we’re basically getting rid of all these cancers.

Who should get the HPV vaccine?
It's recommended that all boys and girls receive the two-dose vaccine by age 11 to 12. Women and men (not previously HPV vaccinated) can also receive the vaccine up to age 26, and in some cases, as old as 45. If you’re in this age group, ask your doctor what is right for you. Keep in mind that anyone immunized at age 15 or older needs three doses of the vaccine.

What does age have to do with the vaccination?
The vaccine is more effective if we give it earlier—the immune response in the body is stronger when we vaccinate the kids at age 11.

Are there different types of HPV vaccines?
All three HPV vaccines—Gardasil 9, Gardasil and Cervarix—are considered safe by the CDC. Only Gardasil 9 is used now, however, as it protects against additional strains of HPV and provides broader coverage.

How safe is the vaccine?
Only a small fraction of the millions of people who’ve received the HPV vaccine experience any problems. The most common adverse effect is a local reaction, such as pain or redness at the site of the injection. Some patients may feel lightheaded, so we make sure they’ve had something to eat before receiving the vaccine and that they rest afterwards.

How long does the vaccine protection last?
At this point, there are no recommendations for booster doses of the vaccine for those who received the two-dose vaccine by age 12 or older teens and adults who complete the three-dose series.

Are there any other ways to prevent HPV?
Aside from being fully vaccinated, the only way to prevent HPV would be to never have sexual contact.

Medically reviewed in August 2019.

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