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

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 between ages 9 and 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 represents an important part of a healthy adulthood.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 36,500 men and women get diagnosed each year in the U.S. with a cancer caused by an HPV infection. The most common HPV-linked cancer is oropharynx, predominantly affecting men. The second most common of these cancers 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 Lead Immunization Strategist Andrea Polkinghorn.

What exactly is HPV?

The human papillomavirus includes 150 strains. 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.

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 9-12, 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.

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.

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. After age 26, it’s more likely patients have already been exposed to HPV and should discuss with their doctor whether to get vaccinated.

When should patients get the HPV vaccine?

Sanford Health promotes HPV vaccination as part of annual well child exams, 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.

“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 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 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. More than 135 million doses have been given since the vaccine was licensed, according to the CDC, and its safety and effectiveness continues to be monitored.

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

Potential side effects, typical of HPV vaccine and other routine vaccinations, are usually mild and fade within 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

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