6 key facts everyone needs to know about HPV and the HPV vaccine

August 29, 2016 | by City of Hope

 

Maghami-Ellie Ellie Maghami, M.D.

 

August is National Immunization Awareness Month. Sponsored by the National Public Health Information Coalition, the annual observance encourages people of all ages to stay current with important recommended vaccinations, many of which have been proven to prevent serious diseases.

Preteens and teenagers are focused this month, which puts the HPV vaccine in particular in the spotlight. HPV, or human papillomavirus, is actually a large group of related viruses that are transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact, including sex.

While most HPV infections go away on their own, some can linger and cause changes in the infected cells, leading to genital warts or, in some cases, cancer. (Warts are also known as papillomas, which is where the virus got its name.)

HPV vaccines, however, have been shown to prevent infection with the most common types of the virus, making these immunizations often critical to the sexual health of young people and an early bulwark against certain cancers. “Compliance with the vaccine has been poor historically but may be improving,” said Ellie Maghami, M.D., The Norman and Sadie Lee Professor in Head and Neck Cancer and chief of the Division of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery at City of Hope. “The biggest barrier is lack of awareness.”

To encourage preteens, teenagers and their parents to stay on top of this important preventative measure, with Maghami’s help, we’ve highlighted six key facts about HPV and the HPV vaccine that everyone should know.

1. HPV is extremely widespread.

In fact, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. Approximately 80 million Americans currently carry the virus, and nearly every man or woman who is sexually active will get it at some point. This is because, as with herpes, carriers can show no symptoms, which also makes it difficult to know when, or from whom, it was contracted.

2. Anyone who is sexually active can get HPV.

This is why it’s most effective when young people receive the immunization before they become sexually active, because HPV can be transmitted during a single sexual encounter (vaginal, anal or oral sex). Around 14 million new people, many teenagers, become infected each year.

3. HPV can cause a number of cancers.

“The biggest misconception is that HPV-related cancer is a woman’s disease, cervical cancer in particular,” said Maghami. “The public needs to gain awareness than HPV is a risk factor for anal and throat cancers and that these diseases can affect both genders.”

HPV-caused cancers affect approximately 30,000 people each year, a small percentage of total HPV cases, though there is no way to determine which HPV carriers will develop cancers. An HPV infection can lead to cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancers in women, and penile cancer in men. Both men and women are susceptible to anal and oropharynx (back of the throat) cancers and genital warts as a result of contracting HPV.

The most common cancers that result from HPV infection are anal and cervical, the latter of which is almost always caused by HPV. Cervical cancer also happens to be the only HPV-caused cancer with useful screening tests; regular screenings for women are thus essential, since the disease often remains undetectable until it has already advanced to a point where it’s hard to treat. Cancer can take years, or even much longer, to develop once someone is infected with HPV.

4. It’s best to get the vaccine early — but better late than never.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that boys and girls ages 11 and 12 receive the HPV immunization, which consists of three shots over a six-month period. As a nice bonus, the HPV vaccine also boosts preteens’ immune systems. If a teenager has not yet received the vaccine and has been sexually active, it’s still a great idea to get him or her immunized.

Women can get vaccinated through age 26, men through age 21, though the CDC also suggests that any man who has had sex with other men, or who has a compromised immune system, can also get the vaccine through age 26.

“The vaccine efficacy is age sensitive,” said Maghami. “The vaccine may be protective if administered to children and teenagers/young adults before they have initiated sexual activities. Older adults have likely already been exposed to HPV through sexual contact and so the vaccine is unlikely to provide added benefit to them.”

5. There is no treatment for HPV.

While the HPV virus cannot be treated directly, any problems caused by the virus can be treated. Again, it’s impossible to know which HPV infections will develop into cancer, and as with all cancers early detection is often key to successful treatment. So prevention through the vaccine will always be superior to the rigors of late-stage treatment.

6. HPV vaccines are safe and have minimal side effects.

The FDA has approved all active HPV vaccines after extensive testing, though it and the CDC continue to monitor the immunizations for safety. The HPV shots only have the potential side effects common to most vaccines, which include redness, swelling and pain where the shot was given in the arm, as well as headache, dizziness and nausea.

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