HPV, the First Cancer Vaccine
By: Jamie Harms, M.D.
In 2006, the first vaccine to help prevent a cancer was released in the United States: the HPV vaccine.
Cervical cancer was one of the most common cancers among women in the U.S. until Pap smears became routine and helped identify pre-cancerous and early cancerous cervical cells. Cervical cancer is almost always caused by a virus, the human papilloma virus.
HPV is common
The human papilloma virus (HPV) is also the cause of anal and genital warts, as well as vaginal, anal, penile and oral cancers. It is spread by skin-to-skin contact, including sexual contact as well as oral sex and hand-to-genital contact.
HPV is common. It is estimated that 75-80% of sexually active adults will become infected with at least one strain of HPV by the age of 50. There are over 100 strains of HPV, and while most of them are not harmful, about 15 are known to cause cervical cancer. Most times, HPV infection goes away on its own, but in 10-20% of women, the HPV infection does not go away. These women are at risk of developing cervical cancer.
The HPV vaccine
In 2006, a vaccine against HPV was released in the U.S. The vaccine is recommended for both girls and boys at 11-12 years of age. It is given in a series of two vaccines, 6 months apart. Teens and young adults can get this vaccine later but will need three vaccines if it is given after age 15 because the vaccine is much more effective in younger teens.
Proven safe and effective
Here’s the best news… this vaccine is making a difference in our health. In girls 13-19 years of age, HPV infections have dropped by 83%. The number of women 20-24 years of age infected by HPV has dropped by 66%. That’s HUGE! The frequency of genital warts in girls and boys has dropped, too — girls by 67% and boys by 48%. The number of precancerous findings in girls has dropped by 51%.
So, this vaccine is working, and working well. Since the vaccine was released, there have been no reports of major side effects. The most common side effects are soreness and redness at the injection site, headaches and nausea. Some parents have worried that giving their child this vaccine will result in decreased fertility or will encourage them to have sex earlier or more often, but studies show that this is not true.
MPCP recommends that your child receive the HPV vaccine with their other required vaccines at 11-12 years of age. Talk with your doctor or look at these good sources for more information:
- CDC: Vaccinating Boys and Girls
- American Sexual Health Association: HPV Vaccines
- Up to Date: HPV, Beyond the Basics
Dr. Harms is a Maryland Primary Care Physicians, LLC partner and is certified by the American Board of Family Medicine. She sees patients at the Queenstown office.