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Health Information | 12/06/2017

The HPV Vaccine

By  Dr. Jenna O'Connell
My patients and their families are familiar with most of the vaccines I recommend – tetanus, measles, chicken pox, and so on – but when I discuss the HPV vaccine, I find many people don’t know why I am recommending it. Here’s what I tell my patients about HPV and the HPV vaccine:
  • HPV stands for human papillomavirus, a group of more than 150 related viruses.
  • The virus can be spread by vaginal, anal, or oral sex, or any intimate, skin to skin contact.
  • HPV causes genital warts (or papillomas) as well as certain cancers – of the mouth and throat, the anus and rectum, penile, cervical, vaginal, and vulvar
  • The vaccine prevents infection with the types of HPV that most commonly cause cancer, meaning it has the potential to prevent cancer. We do not have any other vaccine that can prevent cancer.
While the last point is very compelling, some parents worry that getting the vaccine will encourage teens to start having sex. I’m glad I can tell families that studies have shown that vaccination is NOT associated with increased sexual activity (here’s one study announced by the American Academy of Pediatrics).

How big a deal is HPV?

First of all, it’s very common. Most people will get HPV at some point in their lives. Currently, 80 million people (1 in 4) are infected with HPV in the US, and 14 million people, including teens, become infected each year. Because 9 times out of 10 the virus disappears without any symptoms or consequences, most people don’t even know they’re infected, which is why it’s so pervasive and easily spread. It’s that 1 out of 10 infections that do not resolve on their own that we’re most concerned about, as cancers caused by HPV are difficult to detect and treat. Screening exists for cervical cancer but not for any other type of cancer caused by HPV. Further, HPV-related cancers are often not detected until later stages, which can mean lower survival rates.

When is the HPV vaccine administered?

At Atrius Health, we follow the CDC’s guidelines and recommend that all children (boys and girls) be vaccinated at 11 or 12 years of age. (The HPV vaccine is more effective if it is given at a younger age and before someone’s first sexual contact.) At that age, it’s a 2-shot series, with doses administered 6-12 months apart. The vaccine series can be initiated through the age of 26, but if the first dose is given after the age of 15, 3 shots are required.

Is the HPV vaccine safe?

YES. All 3 vaccines on the market today (Gardasil, Gardasil 9 – the one we have in the US – and Cervarix) were studied extensively through clinical trials. And just like other vaccines, they have been closely monitored by the CDC and the FDA for any safety events after they were licensed. The HPV vaccine is typically not associated with any serious side effects. The most common side effects are similar to other vaccines: pain, redness or swelling at the injection site, nausea, headache, fever, muscle or joint pain. Dizziness or even fainting does occur, though rarely, so we ask our patients to remain seated or lying down for 15 minutes following vaccination. I encourage everyone to please consider the HPV vaccine a necessary and important immunization for your child.

For more information about HPV and the HPV vaccine, please speak with your child’s pediatrician or learn more from these resources:

About The Author

Dr. Jenna O'Connell

Dr. Jenna O’Connell grew up in Natick and attended the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. She completed her pediatric internship and residency at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children in Boston. Dr. O’Connell’s clinical interests are broad and varied. She enjoys all of primary care, particularly newborn medicine and early childhood development, as well as adolescent medicine.

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