What you need to know about HPV

Learn about human papillomavirus: its causes, symptoms and how to prevent it

An adolescent girl in a face mask gets ready for a vaccine while a nurse, with his back to the camera, sterilizes the patient's upper arm.

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. One is the hepatitis B vaccine, often given to infants to help prevent liver cancer. The other is the HPV vaccine.

The HPV, or human papillomavirus, vaccine offers protection from the nine HPV strains that most commonly cause cancer. The vaccine helps prevent six types of cancer:

  • Anal
  • Cervical
  • Oropharynx (mouth and throat)
  • Penile
  • Vaginal
  • Vulvar

Ideally, boys and girls receive the HPV vaccine between ages 9 and 12, before they’re exposed to the virus. Around four out of five people will contract the virus in their lives, so the childhood vaccine is an important step toward healthy adulthood.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 36,500 people are diagnosed each year in the U.S. with a cancer caused by an HPV infection. The most common HPV-linked cancer is oropharynx, mainly affecting men. The second most common of these cancers is cervical cancer, which affects women.

Dr. Christina daSilva, a Sanford Health pediatrician, and Andrea Polkinghorn, Sanford Health’s lead immunization strategist, have answers to your questions about HPV.

What exactly is HPV?

The human papillomavirus includes 150 strains. Genital HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. It can also spread through skin-to-skin contact.

How do you know if you have an HPV infection?

You may not. Many people don’t experience 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.

What is the HPV vaccine?

According to the CDC, HPV vaccines are made from one piece of the virus, but they are not infectious. This means that they cannot cause HPV infections or cancer.

HPV vaccination provides safe, effective and long-lasting protection against cancers caused by HPV.

Who should get the HPV vaccine?

Every adolescent — boy and girl — should get immunized as early as 9 years old, ideally between 9 and 12. This ensures they get full protection against the virus later, Polkinghorn said. They need two doses, with the second being given six to 12 months after the first.

“The HPV vaccine is the safest and most effective way to prevent the cancers caused by HPV infection. The vaccine works best and is most effective when administered between the ages of 9 and12. However, if someone ages 13 through 26 hasn’t been vaccinated, the vaccine still offers benefits. In some cases, the vaccine may be beneficial for adults who are 27 to 45 years old,” Polkinghorn said.

Anyone may get the vaccine, unless the person is pregnant, had an allergic reaction to a past dose or is ill at the time. After age 26, it’s more likely patients have already been exposed to HPV. If they’re still unvaccinated, they should discuss whether to receive the HPV vaccine with their doctor.

When should patients get the HPV vaccine?

Sanford Health promotes HPV vaccination as part of annual well child exams. The exams and vaccines are typically covered by insurance plans.

Regular well child visits help ensure children are staying healthy. They monitor a child’s growth and development and give parents the chance to ask about nutrition, behavior and other concerns about their child’s health.

In some places, school requirements for the Tdap and meningitis vaccines fall at the same time as the recommended HPV timing.

“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 the HPV vaccine is definitely a piece of that puzzle,” Polkinghorn 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 it includes.

Infections of the HPV strains that cause cancers and genital warts have dropped 88% among teen girls and 81% among young adult women since 2006. Among vaccinated women, the percentage of HPV-linked cervical precancers has dropped by 40%.

How safe is the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine is very safe. There are more than 15 years of HPV vaccine safety data to back this up. More than 135 million doses have been given since the vaccine was licensed, according to the CDC.

“Vaccines, in general, have the most rigorous safety monitoring,” Polkinghorn said.

Potential side effects typical of the HPV vaccine and other routine vaccinations are usually mild and only last a day or two. The most common are redness or tenderness at the injection site.

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Posted In Back to School, Cancer, Children's, Gynecology, Health Information, Healthy Living, Immunizations, Women's