If there were a vaccine that could ward off STIs and cancers, people would line up for it—right?
You’d think the answer to that question would be, unequivocally, “yes!” And yet, plenty of folks say “no” to a vaccine that prevents the cancer-causing human papillomavirus, or HPV.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. (It’s so prevalent, in fact, nearly 80% of people will get it in their lifetimes.) Human papillomavirus is the cause of nearly all cervical cancers, and can also lead to cancers of the throat, vulva, vagina, penis or anus.
Gardasil 9, the HPV vaccine approved by the FDA in 2014, could potentially stop 90% of cancers caused by HPV. It also guards against the two strains of HPV that cause the majority of genital warts.
Since most adults have already been exposed to HPV, the vaccine is recommended for girls and boys ages 11 or 12. However, it can be given as early as age nine—and as late as 26. (Some doctors even recommend it for people as old as 45.)
Despite its overwhelming safety and efficacy, fewer than half of American adolescents have been fully vaccinated against HPV. And while adoption is low for a variety of reasons, myths, misinformation, lack of knowledge about the vaccine still are a huge contributing factor.
To help clear the air about this important and potentially life-saving vaccination, we sat down with Dr. Lisa Taulbee, a member of ZOOM+Care’s Women’s Health & Gynecology Team. Read on to learn more about the vaccine, who it’s for (spoiler: it’s not just for girls!), and why you should consider it for yourself or your child.
Human papillomavirus, known as HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States. There are hundreds of different strains that infect different areas of the body—some may cause warts on the hands and feet, while others may infect the mucous membranes, such as the genitals and cervix in women. The strains of HPV that are considered to be high-risk can cause certain types of cancer, including cervical cancer.
It’s estimated that about 80% of sexually active men and women will be exposed to HPV at some point in their lives. However, many experts believe that all sexually active adults have been infected at some point in their lives.
HPV is sexually transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact—unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
The risk factors of HPV are dependent upon a patient’s number of sexual partners, as well as their age. If they start having sex earlier, they’re more susceptible to infection.
There’s a perception that men are not affected by (HPV) because they can be asymptomatic. The truth is, men and women alike can be exposed to the virus. Even though men might not show symptoms, they play a key role in the transmission of HPV to women.
It’s also important to note that there is no currently approved test for HPV in men.
The HPV vaccine is a series of three injections over the course of six months. At ZOOM+Care, we use a vaccine called Gardasil 9. It protects against nine strains of the virus, mostly targeting the high-risk strains that can cause cancer.
To put it simply, HPV vaccination is cancer prevention. The HPV virus causes an estimated 35,000 cases of cancer in men and women every year in the U.S., and the vaccine can prevent more than 32,000 of these cancers from ever developing.
The HPV vaccine benefits both males and females. We recommended beginning vaccination at age 11 or 12, but it’s approved through age 45.
The side effects associated with the HPV vaccination are injection site reactions, and possible headaches, nausea, fevers, and dizziness.
There is a stigma surrounding the HPV vaccine because it targets an infection that is sexually transmitted—and it’s typically given to children who are not yet sexually active. Parents don’t like to think about their child being sexually active one day. But, the whole point of vaccinating early is to administer the vaccine well before sexual activity begins. It’s the best way to protect children from life-threatening cancers later on.
Many parents also have concerns that vaccination would encourage or support youth promiscuity—a belief which is not supported by data.
Barrier methods, such as condoms, are a form of birth control that can prevent infection—though it isn’t 100% guaranteed to be effective.
Studies also show that having an IUD may lower person’s risk of cervical cancer by helping to fight off an HPV infection.
People already infected by HPV can still benefit from vaccination. The vaccine provides immunity against several strains of the virus. So, someone that’s been exposed to one strain can still prevent contraction of strains they have not yet been exposed to.