The latest statistics show that those who would benefit most from the HPV vaccine—adolescent girls and boys—aren't necessarily taking advantage of its cancer-preventing potential. Understanding more about the vaccine may convince you that it's right for you or a loved one. Consider these 5 misconceptions.
The vaccine actually protects against several types of cancer. It does so by targeting certain strains of the human papillomavirus, or HPV. These infections are spread through sexual contact. They can cause genital warts. But most cause no symptoms and go away without treatment.
Some HPV infections may linger for years in your body. These viruses may damage cells, eventually causing cancer. The HPV vaccine prevents those strains responsible for the majority of cervical cancers. It may also prevent HPV infections that lead to cancers of the throat, anus, penis, and vagina.
In 2006, health experts recommended the HPV vaccine for females ages 9 to 26. But its potential to prevent other cancers besides that of the cervix made it appropriate for boys and young men, too. Doctors now encourage males ages 9 to 26 to also receive the vaccine.
Two types of HPV vaccine are available. They are Gardasil and Cervarix. Gardasil is approved for use in both sexes. Cervarix is only for girls and young women. Ideally, three doses of either vaccine are given over a 6-month period at ages 11 or 12 before any sexual activity.
The HPV vaccine may not protect against all HPV infections that may promote cancer. But it can substantially lower your child's risk. In a recent study, researchers compared the HPV history of more than 4,000 women ages 14 to 59 over two 4-year periods. Those timeframes included 2003 to 2006—before the HPV vaccine became available—and 2007 to 2010—after it was in use. They found that the vaccine cut in half the number of HPV infections in girls ages 14 to 19.
Past research including nearly 60,000 participants has confirmed the vaccine's safety. But like all vaccines, side effects are possible. Most are minor. They may include pain and redness at the injection site, fever, dizziness, or nausea. Some people have fainted after receiving the shot. In rare cases, blood clots and Guillain-Barré syndrome—a disorder that weakens muscles—have been reported.
Pap tests detect abnormal cells in the cervix. They alert your doctor to potential cervical cancer. The HPV vaccine may prevent future HPV infections, but it doesn't treat pre-existing ones. It also doesn't prevent all types of cervical cancer. For these reasons, women should still schedule regular Pap tests.
January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. Click here to learn more about your risk for HPV and cervical cancer.
National Cancer Institute – Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccines