According the CDC, approximately 14 million new infections of the human papillomavirus (HPV) will occur each year within the US, and there are already about 79 million Americans currently infected.
HPV is the most prevalent sexually transmitted infection here in the United States, and increased awareness of the infection as well as increased promotion of the HPV vaccine are counteractive measures being taken by healthcare providers all over the country.
The idea of being infected can bring fear and worry, but understanding HPV, the vaccine, and associated risk factors will guide you through the decisions necessary to maintain the best possible health for your body.
The risks are not simply for females; males contract and transmit HPV also. It is important to consider provider guidance for decisions about sexual health, but let us share ten facts about HPV that might answer some of your questions.
1. HPV is not a sign of sexual indiscretion or infidelity. HPV is a very common virus, passed from one person to another during foreplay as well as vaginal, oral, and anal sex. It can happen in a monogamous relationship or with multiple partners; there are no conclusive ways to determine when the HPV originated in the body. HPV often has no signs or symptoms, and the body will fight HPV naturally before it causes health problems. There is the possibility that HPV will lie dormant in a body for years before becoming problematic.
2. Both males and females are susceptible to HPV. Because HPV is transmitted through skin-to skin contact, it is possible for both males and females to be infected regardless of sexual orientation and activity. While many understand HPV can be linked to cervical cancer, many do not realize its potential to cause cancers of the penis in men and cancers of the anus and back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils (oropharynx), in both women and men (CDC). HPV is also indiscriminate of age and race.
3. There are over 100 types of HPV. Some types can cause genital wart, and about 15 types have been linked to HPV-related cancers. HPV types that cause genital warts are referred to as low-risk; HPV 6 and 11 are low-risk types responsible for about 90% of genital warts. HPV types causing certain cancers are referred to as high-risk; HPV 16 and 18 cause about 70% of all cervical cancers. Other high-risk HPV types cause the other 30%.
4. The HPV vaccine is effective at preventing several types of infection. Research data has shown the vaccine provides almost 100% protection against cervical pre-cancers and genital warts. Since the first HPV vaccine was recommended in 2006, there has been a 64% reduction in vaccine-type HPV infections among teen girls in the United States (CDC).
5. The HPV vaccine should be given before sexual activity begins, but there are still benefits if this is not the case. The vaccines do not treat existing infections; they are preventative and more effective prior to any exposure as the body will develop the antibodies necessary to fight possible infection. However, individuals that are sexually active are encouraged to receive the vaccine as it could still prevent future infections of the various types of HPV. It is recommended that all girls and boys who are 11 or 12 years old should get the recommended series of HPV vaccine, but the vaccination series can be started as early as nine years old (CDC).
6. The vaccine itself cannot give a person HPV. The vaccine stimulates the body’s immune system and produces antibodies which will fight the various infections. The vaccine is NOT a live virus injection.
7. There are different vaccination options for males and females which provide different protections. Gardasil– approved females ages 9 through 26- protects against four types of HPV [two high-risk types (HPV types 16 and 18) and two low-risk types (HPV types 6 and 11)]. Gardasil is also approved for use in males ages 9 through 26 and used to reduce the risk cervical, vulvar, vaginal and anal cancers and pre-cancers caused by HPV 16 and 18, as well as genital warts caused by HPV 6 and 11. Cervarix has been approved in females ages 9 through 25, offering protection against two high-risk types of HPV, 16 and 18and reduce the risk cervical cancer and pre-cancer caused by HPV 16 and 18. (Association of Reproductive Health Professionals)
8. HPV vaccinations do not protect against all forms of sexually transmitted infections. Just as the vaccine will not protect against all form of HPV, it will also not protect from other sexually transmitted infection such as e chlamydia, gonorrhea, or HIV.) Condoms should always be used, especially with new sexual partners or if a person’s partner has other sex partners.
9. HPV vaccines are safe and thoroughly tested. Apart from understanding that the vaccine does not cause HPV, you can also rest assured in the safety of the vaccine. As with any medication or vaccine, there can be potential side effects, but few have been reported as serious. The more common side effects include injection site pain, low-grade fever, nausea, dizziness, or fainting. None of the HPV vaccines contain thimerosal (mercury) or any other preservative. (CDC)
10. The vaccine alone does prevent all forms of cervical cancer. While studies are showing a lengthy coverage and protection through the vaccine to prevent infection, it is imperative for females to still have a yearly PAP test and remain informed about their cervical a reproductive health. The vaccine does not prevent cancer; it prevents the infections linked to cancer but only for those HPV strains covered by the vaccine.
Making the decision to have yourself or your child vaccinated is one that should be done in consultation with a physician. The vaccine is a proactive measure addressing the concerns of sexually transmitted infections that are linked to various cancers and genital warts, but it is not comprehensive. It is still advised to follow safe-sex recommendations to avoid the risks associated with both HPV and other infections. However, the HPV vaccine is often covered by major insurance companies, making it an affordable preventative measure toward sexual and reproductive health.