HPV Vaccine

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There are about 150 different types of HPV (Human Papillomavirus) and more than 40 are sexually transmitted. Researchers keep track of the different types of HPV by identifying them with numbers – such as 6, 11,16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58.

Some types cause genital warts, others cause pre-cancerous changes (cellular changes that can lead to cancer of the cervix later). In rare cases, the virus can cause other types of cancers to the vulva, vagina, anus in girls, the anus and penis in guys, and the back of the throat, base of the tongue, and tonsils in both.

There is a vaccine that helps prevent cervical cancer and other conditions caused by certain types of Human Papillomavirus (HPV).

Am I at risk to get HPV?

If you have had sexual contact or plan to have sexual contact in your lifetime, you’re at risk for getting HPV. Any person who has sexual contact—no matter what color, race, gender or sexual orientation—can get HPV. In fact, at least 1 in every 2 sexually active young women has had a genital HPV infection. Over 20 million Americans of all ages know they have the HPV virus because they’ve had genital warts, an abnormal Pap test, or have tested positive for HPV. However, most people don’t know they have HPV because they haven’t had symptoms.

HPV and genital warts are usually spread by direct skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who is infected with HPV. Condoms and dental dams (used as a barrier during oral sex) can help protect against HPV, but they aren’t perfect because HPV can be found on skin that isn’t covered by a condom. HPV can be in the skin and genital organs without any symptoms.

What are the HPV vaccines?

There are now three vaccines that protect young women against different types of HPV.

One vaccine, called Gardasil®, protects young women against four different types of HPV. The vaccine works to prevent two types of HPV-16 and 18, which have been linked to cervical cancer, and two other types—6 and 11, which cause genital warts. Gardasil® can also prevent some vulvar, vaginal, and anal cancers. Gardasil® is also approved for young men.

In 2015, a new vaccine called Gardasil 9® became available. This vaccine works to prevent all of the HPV infections covered by the old Gardasil® (HPV 6, 11, 16, and 18) and also prevents five more types of HPV (31, 33, 54, 52, and 58) which also cause cervical, vulvar, vaginal, and anal cancers. Gardasil 9® is recommended for all young men and women ages 9 through 26.

The third vaccine, called Cervarix®, protects young women against two different types of HPV. This vaccine works to prevent HPV-16 and 18, which have been linked to cervical cancer. It does not protect against HPV-6 and 11. Cervavix® is not approved for young men because it doesn’t prevent genital warts (HPV types 6 and 11).

The vaccines work best in girls/young women who have not yet come in contact with these viruses. That is why the vaccine is recommended for all 11 and 12 year old girls and boys as a routine vaccination, and for all young women 13-26 years of age who have not yet had the vaccine. Young men ages 13-21 who have not yet had the vaccine should also receive it, and young men up to age 26 can receive the vaccine safely. Anyone receiving the HPV vaccine before their 15th birthday needs a total of 2 doses (instead of 3, which used to be the rule.) The 2nd dose should be given 6-12 months after the first one.

However, anyone starting the HPV vaccine series after they turn 15 years old still needs to get 3 doses. The 2nd dose should be given 1-2 months after the first dose and the 3rd dose should be given 6 months after the first dose.

How does the HPV vaccine work?

The vaccine is a fluid that has very small particles in it that look like HPV. The body quickly starts making antibodies against the types of HPV noted above. Antibodies are necessary to fight HPV. Remember that the virus isn’t a live virus, which means you can’t get HPV from the vaccine.

How does a vaccine get approved?

Before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves any medicine or vaccine, scientists and doctors must study it. After researching the vaccine for a long time, the pharmaceutical company that created the vaccine must show that the vaccine will improve the health of people who receive it.

Is the HPV vaccine effective?

When tested in girls who had not yet been exposed to HPV types 6, 11, 16, and 18, Gardasil® was 100% effective in preventing infection. When Cervarix® was tested in girls not yet exposed to HPV types 16 and 18, it was 93% effective in preventing infection. Gardasil 9® protects young women and men against nine different types of HPV including the four previously covered by Gardasil® (6, 11, 16, 18) and five additional types (31, 33, 45, 52, and 58). Overall, Gardasil 9® is expected to prevent 90% of genital warts and 90% of cervical cancers. It can also prevent some vulvar, vaginal and anal cancers.

Both vaccines are less effective in young women and men who have already come in contact with the HPV types in the vaccine. However, if a person has been exposed only to one of the types, the vaccines still gives protection against the remaining types. So, even people who have had sexual contact should get immunized.

It’s important to plan on returning to your health care provider for the follow-up booster shot(s) because the vaccine will not be completely effective if you don’t have all the doses.

When is the best time to get vaccinated?

The best time to get vaccinated is before you come in contact with the HPV virus. In fact, the government organization that decides when kids should be immunized recommends that all 11 and 12 year old girls and boys get it. Health care providers can also offer the vaccine to younger girls and boys (9 and 10 year olds). Gardasil is approved for young women and men from 9 years of age up to 26 years, while Cervarix is approved for young women from 10 years of age up to 25 years. Gardasil 9® is approved for young women and men ages 9-26.

Are there any side effects with the HPV vaccine?

Side effects are rare; however, some young women who get the vaccine may complain of pain, or have swelling or redness where they got the shot (arm or thigh). These discomforts are temporary but may last a couple of days. In very few cases, people may get a fever, feel dizzy, or feel sick to their stomach. Some patients have fainted after receiving the vaccine, so you may want to sit quietly for 10-15 minutes after getting it.

It’s very uncommon to have side-effects from vaccines. If you think you might have had a side-effect (after getting a vaccine), talk to your health care provider. You can also call 1-800-822-7967 or log on to vaers.hhs.gov.

Do I have a choice about getting the HPV vaccine?

Only a few states require that kids get the HPV vaccine. Ask your primary care provider if the HPV vaccine is required in your state. Most health care providers (HCPs) would like you to have the HPV vaccine if you’re between the ages of 9-26 to lessen your risk of cervical cancer (the younger the better). However, most HCPs will suggest that you get the vaccine if you’re between the ages of 9-26 years old to lower your risk of getting genital warts or cervical cancer.

How do I know if I should get the HPV vaccine?

Talk it over with your health care provider. Now that the vaccine is available, it is a good idea to take advantage of it. Most people will become sexually active at some point in their lives and the vaccine is very effective in preventing the spread of HPV. Using condoms lowers your risk of HPV, but condoms are not perfect. Getting HPV is far worse than getting the shot.

Is there any reason why I shouldn’t get the HPV vaccine?

The vaccine is not recommended if you are pregnant, have certain blood conditions, an immune disorder, or certain other medical problems. You should not receive the HPV vaccine if you are allergic to any part of the vaccine or if you had a reaction to the first dose.

Let your health care provider know if you have a latex allergy, as Cervarix® comes in two different vaccines, and one contains latex. Talk to your health care provider to see if the HPV vaccine is right for you.

If you find out you’re pregnant after you get the first shot, tell your health care provider. You will be advised to wait to get the second (or third) shot until after your pregnancy is over.

Should I get the vaccine even if I’ve already had sex and don’t know if I was exposed to HPV?

Yes. All people ages 9-26 should receive the vaccine even if they’ve already had sex. It’s not necessary to have an HPV test before getting the vaccine.

Is the HPV vaccine safe?

The vaccine is considered safe by FDA standards. It’s not made with a live virus that can cause an HPV infection. It does not contain mercury or thimerosal.

If I’ve already tested positive for HPV, will the vaccine help?

It depends on what type of HPV you have been exposed to. The vaccine won’t cure an HPV infection that you already have, such as genital warts, pre-cancers (changes that usually happen before a cancer starts to grow), or cervical cancer. It could, however, protect you from the types of HPV that you have not come in contact with. Many people who have HPV are not infected with all the types of HPV that the vaccine targets. Since there is no test available to tell for sure if a woman or man has had just one or multiple types of the HPV virus, it’s recommended to get the vaccine.

Talk to your health care provider to find out if you should have the vaccine. It’s ALWAYS important to use condoms every time you have sex and to see your health care provider for regular check-ups and Pap tests.

If I get the HPV vaccine will I be protected for the rest of my life?

The vaccine is effective for at least 8 years, but is likely effective even longer. It’s unknown, but at some point in the future a booster will possibly be available.

Is there an HPV vaccine for guys too?

Gardasil® has been approved by the FDA for use in young men ages 9 through 26. It’s given to prevent genital warts caused by HPV-6 and 11. Cervarix® is not approved for use in young men. Gardasil 9® has been approved by the FDA for use in young men ages 9-26.

Will my insurance cover the HPV vaccine?

Most health insurance covers the HPV vaccine, but some may not. It’s expensive if your insurance company doesn’t pay for it. If you’re covered under your parent’s insurance, check with them. If you have your own policy, you can call your insurance provider directly. If you must pay for the vaccine on your own, each dose is about $130, and up to $390 for the full series.

Will there be a vaccine someday, that prevents other types of HPV?

It’s very possible that someday there will be a vaccine that works to prevent more types of HPV.

Having a vaccine that protects against types of HPV that cause serious problems including warts (6 and 11) and cervical and anal cancers (types 16 and 18 for Gardasil®, and types 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58 for Gardasil 9®) is a huge deal and very exciting. Remember, the HPV vaccine protects you against a few kinds of the virus, but it doesn’t protect you from all 150+ of them. It’s still very important to go for regular check-ups and Pap tests. Be sure that you always use condoms if you’re sexually active. Talk to your health care provider about whether the vaccine is right for you.