Since the HPV vaccine hit the market in 2006, I’ve noticed a lot of young women are hesitant to get it. The common questions I hear are: “What is HPV?” “What is my actual risk of getting cervical cancer?” and “Is the vaccine safe?” I also counsel mothers who are debating whether to give the vaccine to their young daughters or sons. They usually ask, “Is it really necessary to give my child the vaccine at age 11?” Most parents feel uncomfortable giving their child a vaccine to prevent a sexually transmitted virus when their daughter or son is nowhere near becoming sexually active, or so they hope.
Human Papilloma Virus
Here are the facts. HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) is a virus that causes warts. It is transmitted through skin to skin contact. There are at least 100 strains of this virus. Some strains cause warts on your hands, feet or other places on your body. Some strains cause warts in the genital area or infect the cervix.
An estimated 75-80% of sexually active adults will become infected with HPV in the genital tract before their 50th birthday. Most HPV infections will go away on their own within one to two years, but sometimes HPV lasts longer and some types can lead to cancer. HPV infections can cause cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancer in women, penile cancer in men and anal, mouth and throat cancer in both women and men.
Every year, more than 31,000 HPV-related cancers are diagnosed. Cervical cancer accounts for more than 10,000 of these and about 4,000 women die from cervical cancer each year. The HPV vaccine helps to protect women and men from contracting the HPV virus, which helps prevent cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus, mouth and throat.
HPV Vaccination – For Girls and Boys
There is currently one available HPV vaccine in the United States: Gardasil 9. Gardasil 9 protects against nine different types of HPV. These HPV types (6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58) are responsible the majority of cancers attributed to HPV. HPV types 16 and 18 account for 66% of cervical cancers and a majority of the other HPV-related cancers. HPV types 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58 are responsible for an additional 15% of cervical cancers. This means that Gardasil 9 protects against HPV types that account for about 81% cervical cancers. HPV types 6 and 11 account for 90% of genital warts.
If started before age 15, Gardasil 9 is administered in only 2 doses, with the second dose given 6-12 months after the first dose. If the vaccine series is started after a person’s 15th birthday, Gardasil 9 is given in three doses over a six-month period of time. Studies suggest the HPV vaccine is as safe as other common vaccines. The vaccine is recommended for girls and boys age 11-12, but is approved for both groups from age 9 to 26.
And this is where I usually get some raised eyebrows, “Really? Age nine? Why so young?” The answer is that the HPV vaccine prevents HPV infections, but it does not cure HPV infections. Therefore, girls and boys need to get the vaccine before they become sexually active, otherwise the vaccine doesn’t work nearly as well. In fact, research has shown the vaccine can prevent between 93-100% of serious cervical infections or cancers in those who are vaccinated before becoming sexually active. In contrast, it prevents less than 50% of serious cervical infections or cancers in those who get vaccinated after becoming sexually active. That’s a REALLY big difference. And recent studies suggest one out of every three ninth graders is sexually active and some become sexually active even earlier than that.
The vaccine should be available through your primary care provider, pediatrician or gynecologic care provider. It may also be available at your local pharmacy or county health department. If you are interested in getting vaccinated or want to learn more information about the vaccine, make it a priority to discuss this with your or your child’s healthcare provider at your next visit.
As a clinician and as someone who believes in the importance of public health, the HPV vaccine is a major breakthrough in the prevention of cervical cancer. If we get enough young people vaccinated it is possible I may get to a point in my career when I no longer see abnormal Pap smear results. Wouldn’t that be great?
Contact one of our offices to make an appointment to have your child vaccinated.
Updated: April 20, 2019.