There is so much confusion around the human papillomavirus, or HPV: what it is, what causes it, how you can prevent it, and most commonly, whether or not the HPV vaccine is actually safe.
What is HPV?
Here are the basics: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV is a group of more than 150 related viruses. It's transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact, and you can get it by having vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone else who has the virus. It is very common: 80% of people will get an HPV infection in their lifetime.
That may sound alarming, but in most cases, HPV goes away without any signs and doesn't lead to health issues. When HPV doesn't go away, it can lead to genital warts and cancer. It's important to note 25 percent of men and 20 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 59 are infected with the cancer-causing strains.
What is the HPV vaccine?
The best way to prevent these harmful types of HPV is to get the HPV vaccine, which was first recommended in 2006, but people are still wary of it.
“This is the only vaccine we have that prevents cancer,” said Dr. Donnica Moore, president of the Sapphire Women’s Health Group in New Jersey. The HPV vaccine protects against strains of the virus that have been shown to cause cervical, vaginal, vulvar and penile cancer, as well as certain cancers of the mouth and throat.
The most common cancer in women related to HPV is cervical cancer. In men, the head and neck are most commonly involved. A high-profile reminder of this hazard was Michael Douglas’s HPV-related throat cancer, which was found and treated in 2010.
Is the HPV vaccine safe? Does the HPV vaccine work?
The HPV vaccine is safe and effective: According to the CDC, the vaccine provides close to 100% protection against cervical precancers and genital warts. HPV infections and cervical precancers have dropped significantly since the vaccine was introduced: among teen girls, HPV infections that cause most HPV cancers and genital warts have dropped 71%; among young adult women, infections with HPV types that cause most HPV cancers and genital warts have dropped 61 percent; and among vaccinated women, cervical precancers caused by HPV types has dropped by 40%.
Who should get the HPV vaccine?
Currently, the vaccine is recommended for girls and young women between the ages of 9 and 26, said Dr. Melissa Simon, vice chair of clinical research in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. It’s also recommended for boys and men between 9 and 21, she added.
For children between 9 and 14, the recommendation is two doses, six months apart. If started later than 14, the recommendation is three doses over the course of six months.
In October 2018, the U.S Food & Drug Administration approved expanded use of the HPV vaccine to include individuals ages 27 to 45 years old.
Many parents are worried that vaccinating kids against a sexually transmitted disease will make them promiscuous, but experts say that's not true.
“It doesn’t make them want more sex,” Simon said. If that concern is what’s holding you back, just tell your children they’re getting the vaccine to prevent cancer, Moore said.
While kids are the most likely to develop new infections with HPV, increasing numbers of women in their 50s are testing positive for it, Moore said. That’s most likely tied to new sexual activity after divorce, she explained.
Talk to your doctor if you think you could benefit from getting the HPV vaccine.