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Understanding the HPV Vaccine

When parents take their middle school child to the doctor, many are surprised when their provider recommends the HPV vaccine for their child. After all, isn’t the HPV vaccine for those who are sexually active? Yes, and no! The HPV vaccine is a preventative vaccine that prepares your child’s body to fight off HPV if they become exposed or infected in the future.

Let’s take a look at what HPV is, how the vaccine helps, who should be vaccinated and when, as well as some myths that are commonly believed about the vaccine.

What is HPV

HPV, the acronym for human papillomavirus, is a group of more than 150 related viruses. Some of these papillomaviruses cause warts or papillomas (non-cancerous tumors), while others are known for causing cancer. HPV is the cause of most cases of cervical cancer, as well as many vulvar, anal, vaginal, penile, and oropharyngeal (throat and mouth) cancers.

Papillomaviruses are attracted to and live on certain bodily cells called squamous epithelial cells. These cells can be found on the surface of the skin and on moist surfaces of the body, such as:

  • The inner nose, mouth, and throat
  • The vagina, anus, cervix, and vulva
  • The inner foreskin and urethra of a penis
  • The inner eyelids
  • The trachea and bronchi

Roughly 75% of HPV types cause common warts on a person’s skin, most often found on their arms, hands, chest, and feet.

The remaining types of HPV are considered mucosal. They infect the moist surface layers (the ones listed above) and are called genital (or anogenital) because they are most often on or around the genital and anal areas.

How the HPV Vaccine Helps Prevent HPV

An HPV vaccine can help prevent future infections caused by certain types of HPV and the cancers that are linked to those types. Gardasil 9 is currently the only HPV vaccine available in the U.S.

Of the infections it guards against, Gardasil 9 helps protect from HPV-16 and HPV-18, the two types that cause the most pre-cancers, cervical cancers, and cancers of the penis, anus, vulva, vagina, and throat. Gardasil 9 also protects against HPV-6, HPV-11, HPV-31, HPV-33, HPV-45, HPV-52, and HPV-58; therefore, protecting against HPV types that cause about 90% of cervical cancers.

The vaccine only protects against the listed HPV types if they were given before exposure to the virus occurred.

Why the HPV Vaccine is Safe

The HPV vaccine has been tested on thousands of people from around the world before it was approved. It is also constantly monitored for safety. So far, no studies show any deaths linked to the HPV vaccine.

The only mild side effects reported include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Pain and redness at the shot application site

As with many vaccines, sometimes people faint after receiving them. This reaction is usually not caused by the vaccines themselves, and fainting tends to be more common in teens rather than children or young adults. To keep people from getting hurt from fainting or to ensure there isn’t an immediate allergic reaction, providers typically have the patient wait for 15 minutes after receiving the vaccine.

Who Should and Shouldn’t Be Vaccinated for HPV

Beginning at the age of 9, anyone who has not already gotten it should get the HPV vaccine. Typically, it’s best to give two doses of the HPV vaccine to girls and boys between the ages of 11-12. The earlier an individual is able to get it, the better, as the vaccination in young adults doesn’t prevent as many cancers as the vaccination of children and teens. It is not recommended by the American Cancer Society for an adult over the age of 26 to get the HPV vaccination.

Why does the vaccine work best for children and teens? Research shows that children and teens have a better immune response to the HPV vaccine than those in their 20s. By the age of 18, the effectiveness of the HPV vaccine begins to decrease.

The following individuals should NOT get the HPV vaccine:

  • Pregnant women: It’s not recommended that pregnant women receive the HPV vaccine at this time, even though they appear to be safe for both mother and baby. If you started the vaccine series before you knew you were pregnant, you should complete it after you give birth.
  • Anyone with severe allergies to yeast
  • Anyone who has ever had a life-threatening allergic reaction to other vaccines. Talk to your doctor if you have had allergic reactions to ingredients in other vaccines.
  • Anyone who had a serious reaction to their first dose of the HPV vaccine

If you’ve had HPV previously, you should still get the vaccine, as it could protect you from the other types of HPV that you haven’t been infected with.

If you’ve gotten the HPV vaccine, you still need to be screened for cervical cancer. The vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer, just the majority.

Why You Should Get Vaccinated for HPV

According to the CDC, 85% of people will get an HPV infection in their lifetime. Every year, approximately 14 million Americans, teens through adults, are infected with HPV. Of these HPV infections, most go away on their own, while others cause certain types of cancer (as we listed above).

Since the release of the HPV vaccine, HPV types that cause cancer and genital warts among teenage girls have decreased by 86%. Of adult women that received the vaccination, HPV types that cause cancer have decreased by 40%.

It is estimated that nearly 36,000 cases of cancer a year in the United States are caused by HPV in men and women. The HPV vaccine could prevent more than 32,000 of these if everyone were to get the vaccine.

The HPV vaccine is currently backed by 12 years of research on its safety, with over 120 million doses distributed in the United States. Preventing cancer is better than treating it, which is exactly what getting the HPV vaccine could do for you.

The Timeline of Effectiveness for the HPV Vaccine

Current research reveals that the vaccine is effective, and there are currently no signs that protection decreases over time. However, because the vaccine is relatively new, researchers continue to monitor its effectiveness over time and will recommend booster shots if they find they are needed. Right now, the two doses are expected to suffice.

Health Insurance Coverage for the HPV Vaccine

Most insurance plans cover the HPV vaccine, but check with your insurance to be sure.

If you don’t have insurance or your child isn’t covered by your insurance, the vaccine is included in the CDC’s Vaccines for Children (VFC) program. The program covers the vaccine costs for all children and teens under the age of 19 who don’t have insurance, or are either Medicaid-eligible, American Indian, or Alaska Native. They also allow children and teens to receive these vaccines from federally qualified health centers and rural health centers. If you would like to discuss the HPV vaccine with your provider, schedule an appointment with us! We are always open to questions and want to ensure that you can make an informed decision based on your individual health and needs.