Recently, the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine has been in the news. Here is some information to help parents and young women make educated decisions about this vaccine.
What is HPV and what are my chances of getting it?
HPV is a virus transmitted from person to person by sexual contact. Depending on your age group, between 1/10 and 1/3 individuals carry the virus (highest is in the 20-24 age group). In healthy individuals the virus often clears after 2 years.
Why is it important to know about HPV?
While most of the over 100 HPV viruses are harmless, about 15 of them have been shown to cause cervical cancer, and 15 other viruses cause genital warts. Viruses HPV 16 and HPV 18 are two of the more serious types of HPV that cause 70% of cervical cancers. HPV 6 and HPV 11 cause nearly 90% of all genital warts. While it isn’t possible to vaccinate against all types of HPV, vaccination against a few is approved by the FDA.
Tell me more about the HPV vaccine.
Two brands of HPV vaccines are now available and neither cause harm, other than mild local reactions from the injections. The first brand to be FDA-approved immunizes against four types of HPV (6,11,16 and 18) and is approved for both men and women. The second FDA-approved brand immunizes against two of the types that cause cervical cancer (16 and 18) but is only approved for women. The immunizations are NOT treatments for conditions caused by HPV – they prevent the development of disease if exposed to one of these strains of the virus after immunization.
Do I still need to get regular Pap smears?
Immunization protects against only these specific types of HPV – it does not eliminate all risk of cervical cancer or genital warts or any other sexually transmitted diseases. So Pap screening is still recommended, even for women who have been vaccinated.
At what age should the vaccination be given?
The shots need to be given before the first exposure to HPV to be effective – between the ages of 9 and 26. The ideal age to give the vaccine is a subject of controversy, but in general experts agree that age 11-12 is an appropriate time. For both brands of vaccines, the individual will have three shots over a period of six months.
Roger C. Young, MD, PhD, is a Gynecologist/Obstetrician at the UVM Medical Center, Director of the UVM Medical Center’s Colposcopy Clinic, and a Professor at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM.