The human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases, and the virus can cause many types of cancers, including cervical cancer. There is a vaccine that can prevent HPV infection, and it’s recommended for both girls and boys.
“Some cancers are caused by viral infections, specifically infection from the HPV virus. And the fact that we have a vaccine that can prevent that is really exciting,” says Dr. Emily Dalton.
What is HPV?
HPV is a group of more than 150 related viruses. HPV is easily spread through sexual or intimate skin-to-skin contact and can cause genital warts, as well as cervical, vaginal, rectal and penile cancers, along with certain cancers of the head and neck.
Who should be vaccinated?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that girls and boys get 2 doses of the HPV vaccine at ages 11-12, or 3 doses after age 14 if they missed getting it earlier.
Audrey Garrett, a gynecologic oncologist at Willamette Valley Cancer Institute, says, “We know that the immune system responds to vaccines better the younger we administer the vaccines, and we want kids to be immunized before they have any chance of coming into contact with that virus.”
Until recently, only young people up to age 26 were able to get the vaccine. That has been extended for women and men up to age 45. Once you’ve been exposed to the HPV virus, the vaccine is not effective, which is another reason to administer the vaccine in the preteen years.
Dr. Garrett treats many patients with HPV-related cancers, including cervical cancer. She also serves as an educational speaker for Merck, which manufactures the only HPV vaccine currently on the market in the U.S.
How safe is the vaccine?
According to snopes.com, the oldest and largest internet fact-checking site, articles calling the vaccine unsafe are inaccurate or unfounded. Like any vaccine, the HPV vaccine may cause minor side effects, including swelling or pain at the injection site, or feeling faint after getting the shot.
“This is an incredibly safe vaccine,” Dr. Garrett says. “And it pains me every time I have to see a 26-year-old, a 29-year-old, or a 32-year-old, and I have to do something that renders them unable to have children because of an HPV-related disease, when they could have been given that vaccine.”
“Some parents think if they give their children the HPV vaccine, their kids will be more likely to become sexually active, and that’s also not true,” says Dr. Dalton. “That has been studied, and there’s no evidence to support it.”
The HPV vaccine was FDA approved in 2006. More than a decade worth of data shows that HPV infection rates have fallen dramatically since.
“Infection rates have dropped as much as 60-70% in teens and young adults in the last decade, so that’s a huge success,” Dr. Dalton says. “We think that’s going to translate into a lot fewer cases of HPV-related cancers.”