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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.
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: A recent report found 42 percent of Americans are infected with HPV.
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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.
So what can you do? 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. 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.
The HPV vaccine is safe and effective: According to the CDC, the vaccine provides close to 100 percent protection against cervical pre-cancers and genital warts.
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. 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.
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.
For women older than 26 and men older than 21, the best way to prevent infection is with barrier protection, such as condoms.
If you're older than 26 and want to be vaccinated, you can talk to your doctor about it. “Doctors can prescribe any FDA-approved drug or vaccine for anything they determine is appropriate, however you may have to pay for it,” Moore said. That’s because the labeling says it’s for women under age 27 and men under age 22, and many insurance companies won’t pay for a treatment that is not listed.
You’ll have a better case with the insurance company if you haven’t had sex yet, Moore said. The current age restrictions are in place partly because younger people are less likely to have been exposed to the virus. There’s no point in getting vaccinated if you’ve already been exposed, but your doctor can tell you if it's beneficial for you get the vaccine.