Most people carry the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) in some form. The CDC estimates that it’s so common, most sexually active people will carry it at some stage. Because if this, it may seem surprising to some people that a HPV vaccine is necessary at all. While not all forms of HPV are cause for alarm, some can have devastating consequences. Around 14 of the 100+ HPV strains can cause cervical cancer, with types 16 and 18 accounting for 70% of cases. Some are also connected to penile cancer.
Essentially, the HPV vaccine is a vaccine against cancer. As not all types of cancer have viral causes, it isn’t possible to vaccinate against all of them. However, it makes sense to embrace such preventative measures when they do exist. Since the HPV vaccine’s release 11 years ago, it has resulted in significant successes. Now’s the time to celebrate them.
Who can have the HPV vaccine and what is it?
The HPV vaccine is administered under the public name, Gardasil. It covers four strains of HPV: 6, 11, 16, and 18. These strains account for the majority of cervical cancer cases, as well as some rare forms of anal, genital, head, and neck cancers. The risk for these cancers increases when someone catches HPV-related genital warts through sexual activity.
For the HPV vaccine to work, the person receiving it needs to be within a certain age range. It’s most effective when administered between the ages of 12 and 13, and two doses are required. Usually, these doses are given six months apart. Those over the age of 15 are likely to need more doses, as the vaccine becomes less effective when administered at a later age. Although it is possible to have the vaccine until age 25 and still see some benefits, this isn’t as effective as having it between the ages of 12 and 13.
Has the vaccine been successful?
Recent figures published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) suggest that it has had a positive impact on cervical cancer rates. The researchers analysed cervical cancer rates in parts of Scotland where the HPV vaccine was used as part of the childhood vaccination schedule. In those areas, there has been an 89% decrease in cervical cancer at its most severe levels, such as the invasive form CIN3+.
Should boys have the HPV vaccine too?
Initially, public health officials in countries where the vaccine is used recommended administering it only to girls. This is because they originally felt girls could provide protection to boys if the HPV vaccine was given at a high enough rate. However, this meant that only those who entered heterosexual relationships would benefit. As such, boys and men who weren’t solely heterosexual were missing out. Because of this, systems such as the NHS in the UK are now rolling out the HPV vaccine to boys as part of their childhood vaccination schedule.
How else can people protect themselves against HPV-related cancers?
Using barrier contraceptives is always advisable, unless you’re in a long-term relationship and you’re both aware of each other’s state of sexual health. It’s worth noting that barrier contraceptives such as condoms and dental dams should be used with all sexual contact. Otherwise, HPV is a bit of a numbers game. Increasing your number of sexual partners also increases your risk. With that in mind, if you do have a new sexual partner, it’s always wise to inquire about their history before becoming intimate.