Most parents choose to have their children vaccinated against measles, polio, meningitis and other diseases that can be prevented with childhood immunizations. But sometimes, the HPV vaccine gets skipped—and that’s a mistake. The HPV vaccine protects against different types of the HPV virus that can lead to cancer in both men and women.
HPV stands for human papillomavirus, a virus that can live in the skin, inner nose, mouth, throat, vagina, cervix or anus. This virus can spread from one person to another through skin-to-skin contact. It’s a common infection—in fact, 80% of people will be exposed to it in their lifetime.
“There are many versions of the virus,” said Robin Lacour, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center. “Some of them cause warts. Others can cause abnormal cells to grow. Over time these abnormal cells may become cancerous and grow into a tumor.”
Why is the HPV vaccine important?
The FDA-approved vaccine for HPV, called Gardasil 9, is effective in preventing infection with HPV, and reduces the number of people who have warts and abnormal cells. It also reduces the rate of HPV-related cancers, which can develop in the head, neck, throat, uterus, cervix, vagina, vulva, penis and anus.
The vaccine became widely available in 2006, and since then, HPV infections have dropped more than 50% in girls ages 14 to 19. That reduction in infections should mean fewer cancer diagnoses down the road.
The vaccine’s effectiveness also reduces the need for procedures like biopsies, so it reduces anxiety and pain.
Who should get the HPV vaccine?
The Gardasil 9 vaccine is FDA approved for both females and males ages 9 to 45. It is most effective when it’s administered at age 11 to 12. If you’re age 26 or under, you should get it. If you’re age 27 to 45, you should talk to your doctor about the benefits of the vaccine.
You need two doses of the HPV vaccine if you’re age 9 to 14 and three doses if you’re age 15 and older. For most people, it has minimal or no side effects.
Why does the HPV vaccine sometimes get skipped?
Only about 20% of boys and 50% of girls under age 18 receive the HPV vaccine.
“Even among parents who have their children vaccinated, they may feel their child is too young to get a vaccine that protects against a virus that’s labeled “sexually transmitted.” Dr. Lacour said, “Sexual contact is not the only way for HPV to spread. Many forms of normal human contact can also cause it to spread.” And it’s important to administer the vaccine in children when the immune system works best.
Other people might think the vaccine isn’t necessary because they’ve already been exposed to HPV. But there are many different types of HPV. “The vaccine may protect you from a form of HPV that you have not yet been exposed to,” Dr. Lacour said.
Some parents may feel it’s not necessary to vaccinate boys, since they think HPV infection is only linked with cervical cancer. But HPV-related cancers can strike anyone, regardless of gender.
Often, people simply overlook getting the second (or third) dose. Although some studies have shown that even one dose of the HPV vaccine is better than none at all, it is important to get fully vaccinated based on the recommendations for your child’s (or your) age.
The bottom line
The HPV vaccine is safe, effective and recommended for children aged 9 and older. The vaccine protects against strains of HPV that can cause warts, abnormal cells and cancer. If you would like to talk to a pediatrician about immunizations for your child, visit bannerhealth.com.
Other useful articles
- Talking to Your Children About Vaccines
- Lesser-Known Causes of Head and Neck Cancers
- HPV and Anal Cancer: Managing Your Risk