It almost sounds too good to be true: a vaccine that can help prevent cancer long before it might start.
It almost is too good to be true. Only two vaccines can do this. The hepatitis B vaccine, often given to infants, can prevent liver cancer related to the liver infection hepatitis B.
And the HPV, or human papillomavirus, vaccine includes protection from the nine HPV strains that most commonly cause cancer. The vaccine helps prevent six types of cancer: cervical, vaginal, vulvar, penile, oropharynx (mouth and throat) and anal.
Ideally, boys and girls receive the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12, before exposure to the virus. Because about four out of five people will contract the virus at some point in their lives, the childhood vaccination can represent an important part of a healthy adulthood.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 35,000 men and women get diagnosed each year in the U.S. with a cancer caused by an HPV infection. The most common cancer is oropharynx, predominantly affecting men. The second most common cancer is cervical cancer, affecting women.
Here’s a look at the virus and the vaccination recommendations. Information was contributed by Sanford Health pediatrician Christina daSilva and Sanford Health Immunization Strategy Leader Andrea Polkinghorn.
What exactly is HPV?
The human papillomavirus includes 150 kinds of viruses. Genital HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States, but it can spread through skin-to-skin contact, Dr. daSilva said.
How do you know if you have an HPV infection?
You may not — many people won’t have symptoms or health problems. Visible symptoms can include genital warts on men and women, Dr. daSilva said. Cervical precancerous cells may be found during a routine Pap test.
Who should get immunized for HPV?
Every adolescent — boy and girl — should get immunized at age 11 or 12, before exposure, for full protection against the virus later, Polkinghorn said. They need two doses, with the second being given six to 12 months after the first.
Children as young as 9 can get vaccinated. A catch-up regimen exists for people up to age 26. But for those who start the series at age 15 or older, that catch-up regimen involves three doses. The immune response in younger children is more robust, Polkinghorn said, requiring only two doses for them.
What is the vaccination rate for HPV?
The CDC says 51.1% of U.S. teens have completed the full dosage, up from 48.6%, Polkinghorn said. The vaccine, which came out in 2006, initially focused on girls because of its promising effects in reducing cases of cervical cancer. So there’s always been a disparity between males and females getting vaccinated. Now, Polkinghorn said, that gap has narrowed. The increase in the vaccination rate was seen only in boys, according to the latest teen data from the CDC’s National Immunization Surveys.
How come everyone isn’t getting vaccinated?
As children grow older, it gets easier to forget about vaccination schedules — or that even adults need vaccinations, Polkinghorn said. Annual well child exams are recommended and typically covered by insurance plans. But if a child misses a year, that’s also a missed opportunity for a pediatrician or primary care provider to explain the importance of this immunization and its timing.
In some places, school requirements for the Tdap and meningitis vaccines fall at the same time as the recommended HPV timing. However, Polkinghorn said, the HPV vaccination, which is not required, still falls well below the Tdap vaccination rate of 89% and the meningitis rate of 86.6%.
Sanford Health promotes HPV vaccination as part of back-to-school readiness.
“Our job as health care professionals is to ensure that we’re offering our patients the best protection that we know from a medical standpoint. And HPV is definitely a piece of that puzzle,” she said.
How effective is the HPV vaccine?
Studies have shown that the HPV vaccine has proven very effective at preventing the types of cancer caused by the virus strains included in the vaccine, Polkinghorn said.
The CDC says infections of the HPV types that cause most HPV-related cancers and genital warts have dropped 86% among teen girls and 71% among young adult women since 2006.
How safe is the HPV vaccine?
The HPV vaccine is very safe. “Vaccines in general have the most rigorous safety monitoring,” Polkinghorn said. “They have to be studied for years prior to them even being available for use.”
Potential side effects are typical of other routine vaccinations. The most common ones are a stinging sensation at the time of injection and redness or tenderness at the injection site. Anyone may get the vaccine, unless the person is pregnant, had an allergic reaction to a dose in the past, or is ill at the time.