The development of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is an exciting and relatively new development that can potentially prevent the majority of HPV infections.
This is a big deal since HPV is a known cause of certain cancers, especially in women.
The HPV vaccine is recognized as a medical breakthrough, however, it has not been uniformly accepted by the public.
The reasons are multifactorial. One contributing factor is the mis-information campaign by individuals or groups who are opposed to science, evidence based medicine and facts.
Other reasons include the need for multiple vaccinations, underestimation of the risk of HPV and possible complications from it as well as the cost.
There is also some concern about vaccine safety in general, although HPV vaccines have excellent safety records.
Unfortunately, the HPV vaccine’s safety has been undermined by recent false claims linking the vaccine to developmental delays.
These erroneous and irresponsible remarks have led to the lack of trust in the vaccine.
Here we will discuss facts about HPV and the vaccine and answer some common questions so you can make an informed decision.
What is HPV?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus that is spread by sexual contact. This involves any skin-to-skin contact such as vaginal sex, oral sex, anal sex, or any other contact involving the genital area.
While condoms are effective in prevention of pregnancy and some sexually transmitted infections, they do not provide complete protection from HPV infection because they do not cover all exposed genital skin.
The more sexual partners you have, the higher the risk of HPV exposure. Having sex with a partner who has had multiple partners also increases your risk.
About 80 percent of sexually active adults will acquire at least one genital HPV infection before the age of 50.
The majority of people become infected for the first time with one or more HPV types in the anogenital region between ages 15 and 25 years.
Most people who are infected with HPV have no signs or symptoms, and in most cases never develop any problems caused by HPV.
However, about 20 percent of women develop chronic HPV. In this case, there is a higher chance of developing cervical cancer.
It usually takes about 20 to 25 years for a new HPV infection to cause cervical cancer. For this reason, it's important to get regular screening (Pap or HPV tests, or both) to detect any cervical abnormalities early, before cancer develops.
Overview of the vaccine
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus can lead to cancer of the cervix, which affects more than 10,000 American women every year.
HPV can also cause cancers of the vulva and vagina in women, although these cancers are much less common than cervical cancer. HPV also causes cancers of the anus and of the oral cavity and throat in both men and women.
Are different HPV vaccines available?
There are currently three different HPV vaccines are available. All HPV vaccines come in shots.
The dosing for the shots depends on the person's age:
- People younger than 15 should get 2 doses, at least 6 months apart.
- People 15 and older should get 3 doses over 6 months.
Three vaccines are available globally to prevent infection with the specific types of HPV known to cause cervical cancer.
These are Gardasil, Gardasil-9, and Cervarix.
These vaccines are safe, and significantly reduce the number of women who develop cervical abnormalities that can lead to cancer.
This is expected to result in a substantial reduction in the occurrence of cervical cancer as well.
Gardasil and Gardasil-9 also prevent infection with the two HPV types that cause 90 percent of genital warts.
Over 100 different types of HPV have been identified; more than 40 of these are known to infect the cervix, and approximately 15 are known to cause cervical cancer.
However, in the US we only Gardasil-9 is available.
When should HPV vaccine be given?
The current recommendation is that people get the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12. But people can get the vaccine any time from age 9 to 26. Women should not get the vaccine if they are pregnant.
The HPV vaccine works best when it is given before a person gets infected with HPV. The HPV vaccine can't cure an HPV infection that a person already has. That's why it is better to get the HPV vaccine before you have sex for the first time.
Does the vaccine have side effects?
The HPV vaccine, like most vaccines, can cause redness, swelling, or soreness where the shot was given.
Does it really work?
The vaccine has been proven to prevent the types of HPV infection that can cause cervical and vaginal cancer in women. It might lower the risk of other types of cancer as well. The vaccine is also very good at preventing the types of HPV that cause genital warts.
This vaccine is not perfect. In some cases, people who get it can still get an HPV infection. But it is still the best way to lower the risk of HPV.
Can the HPV vaccine prevent other diseases?
No. The HPV vaccine does not keep people from getting or spreading other diseases that are spread through sexual contact.
Do I still need cervical cancer screening if I get the vaccine?
All women, including those who get the HPV vaccine, should be checked on a routine schedule for cervical cancer.
Why should I or my child consider getting this vaccine?
For women, the HPV vaccine provides a direct benefit by safely protecting against cancers that can result from persistent HPV infection. This preventive effect is most notable and best studied with cervical cancer, which is one of the most common female cancers worldwide.
Vaccination also protects against anogenital warts. Although they are benign lesions, they are associated with physical and psychological morbidity and are difficult to treat.
Various studies have shown the potential benefits of HPV vaccination, which also appear to be cost effective for the recommended age range.
In settings where there has been high rates of vaccinations among females there is also evidence of herd immunity among males of similar age, reflected by a reduction in genital warts.
For men, the HPV vaccine provides a direct benefit to recipients by safely protecting against cancers that can result from persistent HPV infection.
Vaccination also protects men against anogenital warts. The overall burden of HPV-associated cancers and pre-cancers among males is less than the burden of cervical cancer in females.
Nevertheless, despite a smaller direct absolute benefit of HPV vaccination in males compared with females, the overall benefit of vaccinating males outweighs its potential risks because of additional population benefits from herd immunity and the documented safety of HPV vaccines.
Various models have indicated that vaccinating both males and females is more beneficial in reducing HPV infection and disease than by vaccinating only females
How long am I protected?
While we don’t know exactly how long the vaccine protects against HPV infection, there has been no evidence to suggest that the HPV vaccine loses any ability to provide protection over time.
Any downside to getting the vaccine?
The HPV vaccine may cause mild redness, tenderness, or swelling near the injection site.
Further, there is no thimerosal (a mercury derivative used as a preservative) in the HPV vaccine.
The vaccine is not currently recommended during pregnancy, although there are no known risks to a fetus if the vaccine is given.
If you are considering getting yourself or your child vaccinated and have concerns about the safety of the vaccine or possible side effects, ask your doctor.
It is important to make decisions that affect your health based on facts backed by science and data. There is a lot of misinformation out there, know your source of information and do your research.
Please remember that medical information provided by us must be considered an educational service only. This blog should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not replace your physician’s independent judgement. Please seek the advice of your physician or healthcare provider regarding any issues related to your health.