If you have a child turning 10 or 11, you have probably heard about the HPV vaccine and may be trying to decide if your child needs it.
An equal opportunity infection that affects both males and females — most in their teens and early 20s — HPV, or the human papillomavirus, is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Almost every person who is sexually active will get HPV at some point in their life if they don't get the HPV vaccine, according to the CDC.
While many HPV infections clear up within two years on their own, some strains persist and are the cause of various cancers in adulthood, including cervical cancer and cancers of the anus, vagina and penis. Up to 70 percent of cancers of the head and neck are HPV-related.
CDC statistics indicate that nearly 80 million people — one in four — are infected with HPV in the United States, and about 14 million people, including both male and female teens, become infected with the virus every year. More than 33,700 women and men are diagnosed with HPV-related cancers each year. More than 90 percent of these cancers — which mainly affect women — could be prevented through vaccination, according to the CDC.
“The HPV vaccine is an important vaccine for both girls and boys,” says Erik Hogen, MD, a pediatrician at Scripps Clinic in Rancho Bernardo. “It is an extremely effective way to protect our younger generation against many types of HPV-related cancers.”
According to the CDC, clinical trials indicate the HPV vaccines provide close to 100 percent protection against cervical precancers and genital warts. There is no evidence to suggest that the vaccine loses its effectiveness over time.
Since 2006, a 64 percent reduction in vaccine-type HPV infections has been recorded among teen girls in the US, according to the CDC. Studies show fewer teens are getting genital warts and cervical precancers are decreasing.
Approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2006 for girls and women and in 2009 for boys and men, the vaccine is recommended for kids 11 or 12 years old.
“It is recommended that preteens receive the immunization so they are protected before ever being exposed to the virus. There is no reason to wait to vaccinate until teens reach puberty or start having sex, and there is no evidence that giving the vaccine encourages early sexual activity,” says Dr. Hogen. “The vaccine also produces a more robust immune response during these younger years.”
HPV vaccine is recommended based on age, not sexual experience. Even if someone has already had sex, they should still get HPV vaccine.
In 2016, the CDC changed the recommended number of doses for individuals receiving the series to two doses if they start before their 15th birthday. The second dose should be given six to 12 months after the first dose.
For those who did not get vaccinated when they were younger, catch-up vaccines are recommended for:
- Boys and men through age 21 (The CDC's advisory committee on immunization recently recommended raising the age to 26).
- Girls and women through age 26
- Gay and bisexual men through age 26
- Young adults who are transgender through age 26
- Young adults with compromised immune systems through age 26
(The CDC's advisory committee on immunizations recommends HPV vaccination for adults ages 27 to 45 who were not adequately vaccinated but that it be a shared decision with their doctor).
Jo Marie Janco, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at Scripps Clinic, offers her perspective on the HPV vaccine. “HPV vaccination is a unique opportunity to prevent HPV-related cancers, in contrast to most of our cancer screening and prevention strategies, which entail detecting pre-cancer or cancer that has already developed,” Dr. Janco explains.
“Its efficacy is highest when the majority of the population is vaccinated prior to HPV exposure – which is why it is so important to vaccinate both boys and girls at an early age,” she adds.
“We still diagnose patients with cervical cancer, at all stages, even with our improved screening and detection programs. So, I would strongly encourage parents to take advantage of this intervention that can prevent cancer for their children.”
According to the CDC, studies of the HPV vaccine have shown no serious safety concerns. Reported side effects are mild, and may include pain in the arm where the shot was administered, fever, dizziness and nausea. Some patients may experience light-headedness for a few minutes after receiving the vaccine. Serious side effects from the vaccine are rare. The CDC and FDA continue to monitor the vaccination.
“Years of testing are required by law to ensure the safety of vaccines before they are made available in the US,” says Dr. Hogen. “Currently the US has the safest, most effective vaccine supply in history.”