Though most people have heard about the HPV vaccine, many still have questions about what it does and whether it’s necessary.
The HPV vaccine helps protect against some types of cancers and warts caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a group of more than 150 related viruses.
HPV is so common that nearly all unvaccinated men and women will be infected at some point in their life, and one in four people are currently infected in the United States.
“Some people will get HPV and never have any issues, while others will have health problems. We can’t initially tell which patients will be affected by the virus,” said Dr. Rebecca Levin, a family physician in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “That’s why it’s important that people get the vaccine and get screened for HPV when appropriate.”
Below, Levin outlines what you need to know about HPV and the HPV vaccine.
Health issues caused by HPV
HPV is passed through intimate skin-to-skin contact, most commonly through sexual intercourse. In most cases, HPV will go away on its own, but it can sometimes cause cervical, penile, vaginal, anal and throat cancer, as well as genital warts. Each year in the U.S., about 30,000 HPV-related cancers are diagnosed.
“You often don’t know that you have HPV, and it can be passed even when the infected person has no symptoms,” Levin said.
The HPV vaccine works by introducing the body to a virus-like particle, but does not actually infect the body with HPV or cancer.
“Then when your body encounters HPV, it knows what it is and how to fight it off, so it doesn’t become a serious infection,” Levin said.
The HPV vaccine protects against nine of the most common HPV strains and has been shown to provide close to 100 percent protection against cervical precancers and genital warts. Rigorous testing has shown the vaccine is safe and effective.
“It has been tested thoroughly, and between 2006 and 2016, 90 million doses were given in the U.S.,” Levin said. “The vaccine has been monitored for more than ten years. It’s been proven to be very safe for patients and provide long-lasting protection.”
The most common side effects of the vaccine include short-term injection-site reactions, such as pain, swelling or redness where the vaccine was given, and in some people, brief fainting spells or dizziness.
Keep in mind that the HPV vaccine does not protect against all causes of cervical cancer or against any other sexually transmitted infections.
Who should get the HPV vaccine
The vaccine is recommended for girls and women who are nine to 26 years old, and boys and men who are nine to 21 years old. It’s most commonly given to girls and boys at age 11 or 12.
“It is most effective if you get the vaccine before you’re exposed to HPV,” Levin said. “We like to talk about this early with our pediatric patients and have it on board so it doesn’t have to be an issue later.”
Two doses of the HPV vaccine are given to adolescents younger than 15 years old, while three doses are needed if the first dose is given after age 15. The vaccine is not recommended for anyone older than 26, as most have likely already been exposed to the virus.
“Despite education on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, vaccination rates remain lower than we’d like,” Levin said. “I hope it will become more like every other childhood vaccine. We’re all about protecting our children from everything we can, and HPV is no exception.”
This article first appeared in the Steamboat Pilot & Today on March 26, 2018.