Cervical cancer continues to be a leading cause of gynecologic cancer deaths worldwide. The main cause of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV), and anyone who is sexually active – male or female – can contract HPV. But most serious HPV-related disease, including cervical cancer, is preventable with the HPV vaccine and routine screening pap tests.
The HPV vaccine is one of the most important advances in family health in the last 50 years. What parents might not realize is that the HPV vaccine is most effective when given to children at a younger age.
I’d like to answer some common questions we get about HPV and the HPV vaccine and explain why I encourage my patients and their families to add the HPV vaccine to the list of standard vaccinations their children receive.
How common is HPV?
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection for both males and females. 80% of sexually active people carry HPV. Almost everyone who is sexually active will get HPV at some point in their lifetime if they don’t get the HPV vaccine.
How do you know if you have HPV?
For females, HPV is usually detected when a pap smear (cervical cancer screening) returns with abnormal results. However, most people who have HPV do not know they are infected and never develop symptoms, although they can spread the disease to their sexual partners. It can take years to develop HPV symptoms, which makes it difficult for someone to know when they first became infected.
How likely is someone with HPV to get cancer?
Most people with HPV will NOT develop cervical cancer, but cancer is more likely with certain subtypes of the virus. Cervical cancer is the most common cancer caused by HPV, but HPV can cause cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, or anus as well. It can also cause cancer in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils.
Do condoms prevent the spread of HPV?
HPV is sexually transmitted either by oral or genital contact. Condoms are somewhat helpful for HPV protection but certainly not ‘bullet proof.’ HPV can infect areas not covered by a condom.
How effective is the HPV vaccine?
The HPV vaccine provides safe, long-lasting protection against approximately 90% of cervical cancers. It can also provide protection against throat and tonsil cancers in men and women and most of the genital cancers in men that are caused by HPV infection. The vaccine protects against 90% of the HPV strains that cause genital warts.
Is the HPV vaccine safe?
Yes. The HPV vaccine has been licensed by the Food and Drug Administration and is approved by the Centers for Disease Control as safe and effective.
How does the HPV vaccine work?
The HPV vaccine is made from a single protein like the one that the virus has on its outer coat. After receiving the vaccine, the body generates antibodies, which are used to fight the real virus if exposed to it.
Who should get the HPV vaccine and when?
All males and females should get the HPV vaccine starting at age 11 and up to age 45. However, since younger children create more antibodies after receiving the vaccine than those in their late teens, parents should not wait to get their kids vaccinated. The vaccine works best if it is given before exposure to HPV, thus, before a person is sexually active. Someone who has already contracted HPV may still be given the vaccine to protect against strains to which they have not been exposed.
How do you get the HPV vaccine?
The HPV vaccine is administered in 2 or 3 separate injections. Individuals can usually receive the HPV vaccine at their family practice/pediatrician, local pharmacy, or OB/GYN. Female patients can get the HPV vaccine at any of VPFW’s 6 offices.
Is the HPV vaccine covered by insurance plans?
Most health insurance plans cover the cost of the HPV vaccine. If your family is uninsured or under-insured, the Vaccines for Children (VFC) program may be able to help.
If you have been hesitant to get your family vaccinated, my hope is that I have addressed your concerns and made your decision a little easier. As a physician at VPFW, my primary goal is to be as proactive as possible to prevent illness when possible. My second goal is to protect my patients from misinformation. Your health is my priority and always will be.