The HPV vaccine: Busting 5 of the most common myths

February 5, 2015
African American patient getting a vaccine from a health care professional

HPV is the most prominent STI in America, but some strains can be protected against in the form of a vaccine.

More than 4,000 women lose their lives to cervical cancer each year.  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 it is estimated that almost half of all sexually active men and women will contract it at some point in their lives; and most people will never know they have been infected, unknowingly passing it to their partners.

Perhaps the largest part of this tragedy is that certain strains of HPV—the most aggressive strains that account for almost 70 percent of HPV-related cancers—can be prevented by vaccination.

While HPV vaccines that were approved by the Food and Drug Administration almost a decade ago are proven to reduce incidences of cervical cancer in women, as well as other forms of cancer in both men and women, many parents are still opting not to vaccinate their children. In fact, vaccination rates are as low as 37.6 percent for girls and 13.9 percent of boys who received all three recommended doses of the vaccine.

With myths about the vaccine at an all-time high, Trisha Sheridan, RN, M.S.N., clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing and a women’s health nurse practitioner, 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 girls and boys, ages 11 and 12. While it’s advertised that the vaccines protect against cervical cancer, they also prevent anal, penile and oral cancers caused by the HPV virus,” Sheridan said. “It’s especially important for boys to get, because there’s no current screening for HPV in men. By the time they become aware of the virus, if they ever do, the damage might already be done.”

There are currently two forms of the HPV vaccine: Cervarix and Gardasil. Gardasil is the only vaccine recommended for both genders.

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 the strains that cause a majority of HPV-related cancers and genital warts: HPV strains 6, 11, 16 and 18,” Sheridan said.

Myth: Only teenagers can get the vaccine

Fact: Even if your child (or yourself for that matter) didn’t get the vaccine at the recommended age, Sheridan says that women could receive the vaccine until they’re 26 and men until the age of 21.

“I still believe it’s a good choice for young adults to get the vaccine, because it will protect them from this very common STI,” she said.

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. Getting a Pap test regularly is still necessary, because precancerous cells can still develop after receiving the vaccine. The best method of prevention, at that point, is catching those cells early and treating them,” Sheridan said.

Myth: Only sexually active people need protection against HPV

Fact: The vaccines are most effective when administered around the ages of 11 or 12. Pre-teens and teenagers are able to produce a more comprehensive immune response to the vaccines, leading to better protection.

“Pre-teens and young adults should both 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,” Sheridan advised. “The vaccine isn’t a license for teens and young adults to be sexually active, nor does it protect against all STI’s, so proper sex-education is still necessary.”

In the end, Sheridan notes, it’s important to remember that it’s all about preventing disease in your child—specifically the prevention of cancer.

— Elizabeth Grimm

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