HPV Vaccination in Cancer Prevention

May is Women’s Health Month. Immunization is an important part of women’s health – especially prevention of human papillomavirus (HPV). Two doses of HPV vaccine (Gardasil) are recommended at age 11 or 12 and can be given as early as age nine. Females ages 15-26 who start the HPV vaccine series need three doses. Some women ages 27-45 may also be vaccinated and should have a conversation with a trusted health care provider about HPV vaccine. HPV vaccine works best when given at a younger age and prior to potential exposure to the virus.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease. A person’s lifetime risk of HPV infection is up to 70%. According to the CDC, roughly 79 million Americans are infected with HPV – approximately 14 million Americans contract a new HPV infection every year.

HPV cancers are among the most common cancers of both men and women. HPV causes cervical, vaginal, vulvar, penile, anal and oropharyngeal cancers. It is believed to cause nearly 5% of all new cancers across the world, making it almost as dangerous as tobacco in that respect. For those with a cervix, pre-cancerous cells occur in about 1 in 6 people, and even with early intervention, 1 in 31 people will develop cervical cancer. Women ages 21 and older are recommended to receive routine screening for cervical cancer. Oropharyngeal cancer has now replaced cervical cancer as number one on the list of HPV-associated cancers.

HPV vaccines are safe and effective. HPV vaccine (Gardasil) prevents up to 90% of cervical cancer and several other types of cancer that are caused by HPV. A recent study from the United Kingdom shows that women who received their HPV vaccines by ages 12-13 had an 87% reduction in cervical cancer incidence. A study of nearly 1.7 million Swedish women comparing vaccinated and unvaccinated groups showed an almost 96% decrease in the risk of invasive cervical cancer in women who received the HPV vaccine before the age of 17. Communities with high HPV vaccination rates have shown near elimination of genital warts and huge declines in HPV cancer. Pre-cancerous markers show considerable declines in individuals that have been vaccinated against HPV.

Most people who receive HPV vaccine have no side effects. Some people have mild side effects, like a sore arm. The most common side effects that have been reported are pain, redness, or swelling of the arm, fever, dizziness or fainting, headache, nausea, and muscle or joint pain. Dozens of studies have shown the vaccine is not associated with any negative short or long-term health issues. More than 135 million doses of HPV vaccine have been distributed since being licensed back in 2006.

Eight in ten North Dakota teens ages 13-17 have been vaccinated, above the national average. The reasons why this vaccine is given at a younger age are many: we need to vaccinate before exposure to HPV to be effective, even if this is years down the road. We also give the vaccine at this age because we are getting kids ready for middle school with a meningitis vaccine and a tetanus booster at the same time, so it’s a comprehensive opportunity. Finally, and perhaps most importantly: preteens have a great immune system and respond so well to this vaccine that they only need two doses versus three.

Women are recommended to receive other wellness vaccines:

  • Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis vaccine (Tdap) is recommended every ten years and during pregnancy.
  • Influenza vaccination is recommended annually.
  • Hepatitis B vaccination is recommended for those younger than 65.
  • Women who are ages 50 and older are recommended to receive shingles vaccine.
  • Those who are ages 65 and older should be vaccinated against pneumococcal illness.
  • Women are encouraged to stay up-to-date with COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Other wellness vaccines may be recommended depending on health status, employment or travel plans.

50-70% of people will experience HPV infection, at some point

HPV is a leading cause of cancer

HPV vaccinations means fewer Pap smears, later in life

People who are vaccinated against HPV before age 15 only need TWO doses

If you are 21 or older and it has been more than three years since you have been screened for cervical cancer, make an appointment with your doctor today.