The HPV Vaccine: Fact vs. Fiction
The HPV vaccine, which is universally recommended for all pre-adolescents, is intended at reducing future cancer in children. While many parents say they have not heard of the human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, it is actually quite common. Roughly 14 million people become infected with the virus every year, and statistics show that one in four adults in the United States is infected with at least one type of HPV.
Annually in the United States, about 35,000 men and women develop cancer due to HPV. According to the CDC, the HPV vaccine provides safe, effective, and lasting protection against the HPV infections that most commonly cause cancer. The vaccination is recommended for all preteens – both girls and boys – between the ages of 11-12 years. The vaccination provides protection against HPV infections that may occur later in life.
Here are some of the most critical misunderstands as well as baseline facts about the HPV vaccine so you can make the appropriate decisions with your family around whether or not to vaccinate.
HPV vaccine prevents only cervical cancer – FALSE.
The vaccine actually protects against several types of cancer. It does so by targeting certain strains of HPV. These infections are spread through sexual contact. HPV can also cause genital warts, but most infections cause no symptoms and go away without treatment.
Some HPV infections may linger for years in your body. These viruses may damage cells, eventually causing cancer. The HPV vaccine prevents those strains responsible for 70% of cervical cancer. It may also prevent HPV infections that lead to head and neck cancers.
There are other ways to protect against HPV infection – FALSE.
The only way to avoid sexually transmitted infections (STI) including HPV is to abstain from any sexual activity. Although condoms can protect against many forms of STI, and should always be used, they do not provide complete protection against HPV. In addition, the absence of symptoms does not mean someone is not infected with HPV.
The HPV vaccine is only for girls and young women – FALSE.
Health experts recommend the HPV vaccine for females and males ages 9 to 26. This virus, which may be silent, can cause cancer in men as well as women. The reason for vaccinating adolescents early is to establish protection before exposure to this virus, as the vaccine is much less effective once a person has been infected.
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The HPV vaccine isn't very effective – FALSE.
The HPV vaccine may not protect against all HPV infections that could promote cancer, but it can substantially lower your child's risk. Research has shown that for girls ages 14 to 19 the vaccine has cut the number of HPV infections in half!
The HPV vaccine isn't safe – FALSE.
Past research has confirmed the vaccine's safety. It is created by using a single protein from each type of virus and as a result, it cannot cause HPV infection or cancer. But like all vaccines, side effects are possible. Most are minor. They may include pain and redness at the injection site, fever, dizziness or nausea. Some people have fainted after receiving the shot. Although blood clots and Guillain-Barré syndrome—a disorder that weakens muscles—have been reported, scientific studies have not found that the vaccine caused these problems.
Women who receive the HPV vaccine don't need Pap tests anymore – FALSE.
Pap tests detect abnormal cells in the cervix. They alert your doctor to potential cervical cancer. The HPV vaccine may prevent future HPV infections, but it doesn't treat pre-existing ones. It also doesn't prevent all types of cervical cancer. For these reasons, women should still schedule regular Pap tests.
How the HPV Vaccine is Given
Three types of HPV vaccines are currently available. All three protect against HPV types 16 and 18 that cause most HPV cancers and have been licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They are:
- 9-valent HPV vaccine (Gardasil® 9, 9vHPV)
- quadrivalent HPV vaccine (Gardasil®, 4vHPV)
- bivalent HPV vaccine (Cervarix®, 2vHPV)
Gardasil is approved for use in both males and females and also includes protection against common genital warts. Cervarix is only for girls and young women.
The CDC recommends that 11 to 12-year-olds receive two doses of the HPV vaccine six to 12 months apart. The first dose is recommended at age 11–12, however, this vaccine can actually be given as early as age nine. Only two doses are recommended if vaccination started at age nine and through age 14. Teens and young adults who start the series later, between the ages of 15 through 26 years, need three doses of the HPV vaccine. Adolescents aged nine through 14 years who have already received two doses of HPV vaccine less than five months apart will require a third dose.
This vaccine is injected in a muscle on the upper arm or thigh by a healthcare professional. You will be observed for 15 minutes after each dose. Occasionally fainting happens after the vaccine is given, so it is recommended that you sit or lie down during the 15 minutes.
Talk to your child’s pediatrician about when your child should receive the HPV vaccine. Remember, the most powerful protection against high-risk behaviors is to have open, honest communication with your child starting at an early age.
Editors note: This article was originally published on July 28th, 2014.