By Karen B. Simon, M.D.
The HPV vaccine was first released for use in 2006 to protect against a very common sexually transmitted disease called the human papillomavirus, or HPV. Since that time, the vaccination has reduced the occurrence of new HPV infections by 90 percent, according to a review of HPV infection rates conducted by researchers at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Australia.
Why is this so important? HPV is responsible for creating genital warts, which are a benign but embarrassing problem. However, more dangerous strains of the HPV virus are linked to cervical cancer, which is deadly. By reducing the rate of new HPV infections, the vaccine is also reducing the rate of cervical cancer, which kills over 250,000 women around the world every year. HPV is also responsible for many cancers of the mouth, throat, vulva, penis and anus. Thus, HPV affects both males and females.
While people dealing with HPV may find it difficult to talk about, they can take comfort in the fact that they are not alone. Virtually everyone who is sexually active will get HPV. Statistics show that 80% of men and women will be infected with the virus during their lifetime.
For most people, it’s not a big deal. The body’s immune system identifies the virus and gets rid of it naturally, similar to how it fights off other viruses like the common cold. However, for others it can create bigger problems, which is why having a vaccine to protect against it is so important.
There are many strains of the HPV virus, over 100 in all that affect different parts of your body. The strains that cause genital warts are types 6 and 11. They are benign, which means they don’t create any major health problems. However, there are 15 strains that are a bigger concern because they can put you at higher risk for developing cancer. Among these strains, HPV type 16 and 18 are at the root of 75 percent of all cervical cancer diagnoses.
The HPV Vaccine and Cervical Cancer
The cervix is located at the lower part of the uterus above the vagina. When a woman has cervical cancer, the cells lining the cervix grow out of control and cause pre-cancerous abnormalities. If these abnormalities are not treated in a timely manner, they can become cancerous and potentially spread to other parts of the body.
According to the American Cancer Society, lifestyle factors such as smoking may increase a woman’s risk for developing cervical cancer. However, high-risk HPV strains are by far the leading cause.
The HPV vaccine is designed to protect against the most common and highest risk strains of the vaccine, including types 6, 11, 16 and 18. The latest version of the vaccine provides protection for nine different strains.
Who Should Be Vaccinated?
The CDC recommends that everyone – boys and girls – should receive the HPV vaccine starting at 11 years old. It can be started as early as 9 years old. It is also recommended for anyone between the ages of 13 and 26 who has not yet been vaccinated.
The vaccine is administered in two doses for children under the age of 15, and in three doses for anyone older than that. This ensures that the person being vaccinated receives full protection from HPV infections. For the vaccine to be most effective, if should be administered before the patient’s first sexual encounter. Statistically, starting at 11 years old provides the best protection.
Over 11,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, and HPV is the direct cause in 91 percent of cases. While cervical cancer will likely never be eradicated by the HPV vaccine, an aggressive approach to vaccinations will continue to reduce the rate of new diagnoses. And remember, the vaccine is not just for girls. It protects boys from cancers of the mouth, throat, penis and anus. Timely vaccinations for children, and condom use and avoiding tobacco for teens and adults, can help everyone avoid the many cancers HPV can cause.
About the Author
Dr. Simon specializes in Obstetrics and Gynecology (OB/GYN). She attempts to help patients become educated about their health and treatment options before they make decisions together.
To schedule an appointment with Dr. Simon, please call 610-872-7660.