The Very Common Human Papillomavirus Infection

The human papillomavirus or HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. With more than 100 HPV types, the virus can be passed from person to person through skin-to-skin contact and infect the genital areas of males and females. In most cases, HPV goes away on its own, but sometimes the virus can lead to genital warts or even cancer. The good news: a vaccine can prevent these health conditions.

Prevention and the HPV vaccine

There are three HPV vaccines available: Cervarix®, GARDASIL® and GARDASIL 9®. The vaccine protects against two noncancerous types of HPV (6 and 11) and two cancer causing types (16 and 18) which cause 70 percent of cervical cancers. GARDASIL® and the new GARDASIL 9® protect against genital warts. In addition, GARDASIL 9® protects against five other types of HPV that cause about 10 percent of cervical cancer and viruses responsible for some types of anal and throat cancers.

Boys and girls between the ages of 11-12 should be vaccinated against HPV, however vaccination can occur up to age 26. HPV vaccines are given as a series of three shots during six months to protect against HPV infections.

Although 11 or 12 sounds young to vaccinate against a sexually transmitted infection, gynecologist Jay Greenberg, M.D., with Meritus Health’s Women’s Health Center, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists or ACOG and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC emphasize that the vaccine should be given before boys and girls become sexually active.

Vaccine safety

Cervarix®, GARDASIL® and GARDASIL 9® are licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and monitored by the CDC. After any vaccine becomes available, the CDC continues to conduct vaccine safety research and searches for adverse events following immunization. Since the vaccines’ original trials more than eight years ago, no significant side effects have been reported.

HPV and cancer

Some types of HPV are more aggressive than others. Oncogenic types can lead to cell changes, and if left unmonitored, can cause cancer. According to the CDC, almost all cervical cancer is caused by HPV and anal and throat cancers are also linked to the virus.

Yet, despite the cancer connection and the commonality of HPV, the ACOG states that only 50 percent of girls between the ages of 13-17 have received the first dose of the vaccine and only 33 percent have received all three doses. For parents on the fence about whether to vaccinate a child with the HPV vaccine, Dr. Greenberg suggests talking to a primary care physician or gynecologist about the vaccine’s benefits and risks.

Most insurance plans and Medicaid cover HPV vaccines and the CDC recommends the full HPV vaccine series for protection against the virus.

Sources: CDC, ACOG