HPV (or human papillomavirus) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States, with approximately 20 million Americans becoming infected each year.
HPV is so common that around 80% of adults will get an HPV infection at some point in their lifetime. The body’s incredible immune system deals with most of these infections, quietly and without complications. In fact, most of these people have no idea they were ever infected.
So far, so good. But not quite. The problems start with some HPV infections that do not clear and which can lead to abnormal cell growth–that can develop into cancer over time. Strains 16 and 18 of HPV have been linked to over 70% of cervical cancers and 63% of penile cancers as well as most mouth, anus, and throat cancers. In fact, cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer among women and kills more than 300,000 women annually.
Until 2009, there was nothing we could do to prevent HPV. Luckily though, we now have vaccines against HPV: Cervarix, Gardasil, and Gardasil 9. Cervarix prevents against 2 types of HPV, Gardasil against four types, and Gardasil 9 against 9 types, including vaginal and vulvar cancer in women and anal cancer in women and men.
Both Gardasil and Cervarix provide nearly 100% protection against persistent cervical infections with HPV types 16 and 18 and the cervical cell changes that these persistent infections can cause.
The Gardasil 9 vaccine is also highly effective. However–and this is a big however–there are two essential conditions which have to be fulfilled if the vaccine is going to work: The first is that all doses must be given at the correct intervals, (girls age 9-14 in two doses, six months apart, and girls over the age of 15, or those who have weakened immune systems at 0, 1-2, and 6 months), and the second is that it must be given BEFORE contracting any form of HPV.
HPV is such a big deal that the World Health Organization (WHO) embarked on a global mission to accelerate the elimination of cervical cancer as a public health problem by 2030. HPV vaccination is one of the three key factors in their strategy.
And science is on their side. The HPV vaccine was over 99% effective at preventing pre-cancer growths caused by HPV types 16 or 18 in young women in clinical trials. Evidence from a recent study of 66 million young men and women showed an 83% reduction in high-risk HPV in teenage girls and 66% reduction in women aged 20-24. The study also showed precancerous cervical lesions declined by 51% in teenage girls and 31% in women up to age 24.
So yes, the HPV shot really does work. It prevents the unnecessary complications and deaths of young women from cervical cancer in the prime of their lives. It also may may prevent genital warts, penile cancer, anal cancer, and the spread of HPV to sexual partners in men. Getting an HPV vaccine is quite clearly a no-brainer.
While the HPV vaccine is extremely effective in terms of preventing HPV and cervical cancer, it is still important to get regular Pap and/or HPV tests. The guidelines have changed due to new research and, depending on your age and whether or not you receive a co-test of HPV and Pap testing, your doctor might recommend testing every 3-5 years until age 65. The good news is that the advances in knowledge regarding HPV has meant that women over the age of 65 without a history of an abnormal Pap no longer need to be tested.
- Quiz: Myths and Facts About Genital HPV
- Cervical Cancer Elimination
- Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccines
- Population-level impact and herd effects following the introduction of human papillomavirus vaccination programmes: updated systematic review and meta-analysis
- HPV Vaccine (Human Papillomavirus Vaccine)
- Mayo Clinic Q and A: Women over 65 may not need Pap tests