6 myths about the HPV vaccine
The leading cause of cervical cancer is human papillomavirus (HPV), which is also the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). HPV is so common that almost every sexually-active person will get HPV at some point in their lives if they have not gotten the vaccine. Those with HPV may never know they have been infected and may unknowingly pass it to their partners.
Accounting for almost 70 percent of HPV-related cancers, the most aggressive strains of HPV can be prevented by vaccination. The vaccine is proven to reduce incidences of cervical cancer and genital warts, as well as other forms of cancer in both men and women.
With myths about the vaccine at an all-time high, Katie Blalock, MD, clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine and family medicine physician at Texas A&M Health Family Care, unveils some of the most common misconceptions about the HPV vaccine.
Myth: The HPV vaccine is just for girls.
Fact: The HPV vaccines are recommended for males and females, starting at age 9. While it’s advertised that the vaccines protect against cervical cancer, they also prevent anal, penile and oral cancers caused by the same HPV virus.
“It’s especially important for boys to get the HPV vaccine, because there is no current screening for HPV in men,” Blalock said. “By the time they become aware of the virus, the damage might already be done and a cancer may have already developed.”
There are currently three forms of the HPV vaccine that have been developed: Gardasil, Gardasil 9 and Cervarix. Gardasil 9 is the only vaccine available in the United States.
Myth: The vaccine protects against all strains of HPV and causes of cervical cancer.
Fact: There are multiple strains of HPV—too many to completely protect everyone from.
“The vaccine protects against HPV strains 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58, which cause majority of HPV-related cancers and genital wards” Blalock said. “70 percent of cervical cancers and 90 percent of anal cancers are caused from strains 16 and 18. HPV types 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58 are known to cause an additional 20 percent of cervical cancers as well.”
Myth: Only teenagers can get the vaccine.
“If you are eligible for the vaccine, then get it,” Blalock said. “As long as you are under 45 years of age and regardless your gender, this vaccine can prevent one of the most common STIs and associated cancers.”
Myth: Women who received the vaccine don’t need to get a Pap test.
Fact: “Although the vaccines protect against the most common strains of HPV that can cause cervical cancer, they don’t protect against all causes of cervical cancer,” Blalock said. “Women should still regularly get a Pap test.” Precancerous cells can still develop after receiving the vaccine. The best method of prevention of cervical cancer is catching the precancerous cells early and treating them.
Myth: Only sexually active people need protection against HPV.
Fact: The vaccine is most effective when administered to individuals who have not been infected or exposed to HPV. Thus, giving the vaccine to pre-teens and teenagers, before they become sexually active, offers better protection. However, the vaccine is recommended in individuals who are sexually active as well.
“Pre-teens and young adults should get the vaccine, because it will help prevent HPV-related cancers as well as protect them against this STI in the event that they do become sexually active,” Blalock advised.
Myth: The HPV vaccine only prevents cervical cancer.
Fact: People infected with HPV are more likely to develop genital warts as well as cervical, anal, oropharyngeal or throat, vulvar, vaginal and penile cancers. The vaccine protects both men and women against the most common, aggressive strains of HPV, and therefore those cancers.
In the end, the HPV vaccine has proven to reduce the likelihood of contracting HPV-related cancers in both men and women. “It is important for you and your children to get the HPV vaccination,” Blalock said. “This vaccine can literally prevent you from getting certain cancers.”