In 2006, the Federal Drug Administration approved Gardasil® — the controversial human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. Doctors across the country began encouraging all female patients, ages 9-26, to receive the three recommended injections. In response, many parents expressed hesitation regarding whether or not they should allow their daughters to receive it.
So what is HPV and why is the vaccine so divisive?
According to Terry Gibbs, DO, ProMedica Physicians Obstetrics and Gynecology, “HPV is a family of viruses. There are at least 100 strains and approximately 15 of those strains are cancer-causing. The cancerous cells most commonly develop in a woman’s cervix.”
Our country experiences close to 5,000 deaths related to cervical cancer each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
HPV is sexually transmitted – and that’s the only way it’s transmitted. Approving the vaccine for your child almost feels like giving them a permission slip for promiscuity, right?
According to Dr. Gibbs, this couldn’t be further from the truth. “All it takes is one exposure,” he warns. “Even a woman who remains a virgin until marriage can contract it. If her husband has been intimate with just one other person prior to her, it is still very possible that he is carrying HPV. And he would never even know.”
To help separate fact from fiction, Dr. Gibbs answers six important questions regarding HPV.
How common is HPV? It is very prevalent. In America, over 50% of sexually active people have it, and most people don’t even realize it. In third world countries, cervical cancer is the third leading cause of death among women. These societies are male dominated and don’t believe in Pap smears.
According to the American Cancer Society, cervical cancer used to be a top cause of death for women in the U.S. as well. Over the past 30 years, due to increased Pap tests and the HPV vaccine, death rates have actually decreased by 50%.
What does the HPV vaccine protect you from? In women, it provides protection from cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. In men, it provides protection from penile cancer. In both men and women, it provides protection from genital warts and cancer of the back of the throat.
It is important to note that not only can HPV be passed during sexual intercourse, but oral sex too.
Does the vaccine protect against all strains of HPV? No. The original vaccine protected against four strains. Two of those strains, 16 and 18, are known to be the most cancer-causing. Today, the latest version of the vaccine protects against eight different strains.
The HPV vaccine is a strong aid, but certainly not a replacement for safe sex practices. And it will not protect against any other sexually transmitted diseases.
At what age should people get the HPV vaccine? In order to capture the sexually naïve before any exposure, 9-26 years of age is generally recommended. This is because the fewer partners the person has had, the more effective the vaccine will be in protecting them.
While the vaccine normally isn’t recommended for the low risk group, (for example: A woman over 40 years old, who has been married for 15 years, has never had an abnormal Pap test and is monogamous), if a woman gets divorced and begins dating again, it may make sense for her to receive the vaccine.
Should boys get the vaccine? Yes, but penile cancer is very rare. Boys are the conduits and should have the vaccine to avoid spreading the virus to others.
Are there any risk factors when getting the HPV vaccine? Just like any other vaccine, there are sometimes reactions. However, the benefits of receiving the HPV vaccine heavily outweigh the risks.
Regardless of age, women should keep up with their regular gynecological exams. Even beyond child-bearing years, there are other issues your doctor will look for and can assist you with. You are more than a Pap smear.