What is HPV?
Human papillomavirus, commonly referred to as HPV, is the most common STD in the United States, with nearly every sexually active adult contracting a strain of HPV during their life. It is spread through vaginal, oral and anal sex with an infected individual, and is seen in a wide range of both symptom-causing and hidden strains that can be detected only through pap smears. Such hidden strains are most common, and, because the virus can be spread without manifest symptoms, accounts for most of the spread. In most cases, HPV infections clear up on without medical intervention, generally within about a year or two, and never cause any symptoms or side effects. In fact, most people with HPV are unaware that they have contracted it.
A few strains of HPV, however, manifest themselves in physical symptoms, and can lead to health complications. The most concerning complication is a highly increased risk of cervical cancer in women, and a risk of penile and prostate cancer in men. In the United States, about 12,000 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer each year. In most cases, these cancers, if caught early, can be treatable, but those related to HPV are also preventable through vaccination. Certain strains can also cause genital warts, which are nonthreatening but highly prevalent. These warts are also treatable but not curable, and can be prevented through vaccination.
What is the vaccine?
There are currently two options for the HPV vaccine available in the United States. The first and most common is called Gardasil, and was developed by the American medical manufacturer Merck and approved by the FDA in 2006. The other vaccine option is marketed under the brand name Cervarix, and is produced by GlaxoSmithKline.
These two vaccines have many similarities. Both are administered as a series of three shots given over a span of about 24 weeks, and have been approved by the FDA to be administered to non-pregnant women younger than 26 years old. They both protect against HPV strains 16 and 18, which cause most of the HPV-related cancers, including cervical cancer, and are made with non-live, non-infectious traces of the HPV virus. This safely exposes the immune system to the virus and builds up antibodies so that if exposure occurs it can be combatted quickly and effectively to prevent infection.
How do the two vaccines differ?
Gardasil is the only HPV vaccine on the market that protects against HPV strains 6 and 11, which account for most HPV-related genital warts, and is the only vaccine approved for use in boys as well as girls. Additionally, although both vaccines protect against cancer-causing strains, Gardasil is the only vaccine that protects against anal and vaginal cancers, in addition to cervical cancer which both protect against. All of these factors contribute to Gardasil’s higher popularity.
Is the vaccine safe?
The HPV vaccine is considered very safe. Still, although the vaccine has been extensively tested and researched, and is still carefully monitored, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the FDA, and has not shown any signs of adverse effects, it has been on the market for under ten years, and is therefore still considered a relatively new vaccination. Although long-term effects cannot be stated with certainty, there is no reason to believe that the vaccine is unsafe.
There have been certain claims that the vaccine can cause mental retardation in its recipients, but there exists practically no evidence to support this. On the contrary, the current body of evidence suggests that this is not the case at all. The number of individuals diagnosed with a mental disorder after receiving the vaccine is pretty much identical to that seen in the population at large, meaning that there is no greater probability that a person who has been vaccinated will be diagnosed with a disorder than one who has not. Additionally, of the deaths that have occurred in vaccinated individuals, there is no evidence that the deaths were linked in any way to the vaccine.
It seems that the only thing that the only real side effect of the vaccine is temporary redness and sensitivity around the injection site, which accompanies shots of any kind, and perhaps some nausea or dizziness depending on the individual and their typical response to similar medical procedures.
Where can I get the vaccine?
You can get an HPV vaccine at a doctor’s office, and nearly all pediatricians’ offices carry the vaccine now, too. There is no prescription necessary as a healthcare provider does all injections on-site at a doctor’s office or clinic.
How does the series work?
After shot #1, you must wait a minimum of 4 weeks before getting shot #2. After shot #2, you must wait a minimum of 12 weeks. The minimum possible window for receiving the full series is 24 weeks, meaning that if you received shot #2 four weeks after shot #1, you must wait 20 weeks before getting shot #3. The CDC recommends getting shot #2 about a month or two after shot #1, and shot #3 about six months after getting shot #1.
If you miss a shot or are late in receiving it, you do not need to start over. Simply let your doctor know which shot you were on and they will continue with the series.
How much does the vaccine cost?
The HPV vaccine series can cost up to about $400 for all three shots, but is covered by most health insurance providers and is sometimes available for a reduced cost at certain health clinics.
Why is it controversial?
Most healthcare experts agree that vaccination is important for boys and girls, and recommend that it be administered around age 11 or 12. This is because the argument against vaccination is largely social and emotional, rather than medical.
Despite scientific evidence that the HPV vaccination safely prevents cancer and genital warts caused by the virus, many parents still oppose the vaccine, and social scientists as well as psychologists and medical experts theorize that this is likely linked to an emotional response to their children becoming sexually active more than anything else.
Currently, the CDC recommends that all men and women under the age of 26 get vaccinated, and that vaccinations become standard for boys and girls at about age 11 or 12, so that the vaccination process is completed well before they become sexually active. However, most parents are uncomfortable with the idea of their children becoming sexually active, and are therefore hesitant to allow the vaccine to be administered. Although a few states have mandated the administration of the HPV vaccine to all 12-year-olds, most have not and the decision rests with the parents. If a parent is opposed to sexual activity either in their own child or in young or unmarried people in general, they may oppose the vaccine on moral grounds, or try to justify their discomfort through assertions of the vaccine’s relatively new status, which fuels the current controversy. The opinions of both sides must be respected, but it is important to emphasize that there is absolutely no evidence to support the idea that the vaccine is in any way unsafe. It is in fact an extremely reliable preventative measure for serious health problems later in life.
There has also been some backlash from moves to mandate vaccination in all children, an idea that has recently become popular across the United States. Some worry that we will rely too heavily on the vaccine for prevention and will begin to move away from regular pap smears and checkups to ensure sexual and reproductive health. Although the HPV vaccine protects against virus-specific types of cancer, it would be unwise for a sexually active individual to change their precautionary habits in light of receiving the vaccine. This includes using condoms with untested, non-monogamous partners and getting regular pap smears to ensure reproductive health.
Although the HPV vaccine has received its fair share of attention since its initial 2006 release, an increasing body of knowledge about the vaccine and its effects, as well as further education about sexual health among young people should alleviate most concerns. As the vaccine becomes more common among children and is normalized, it can be expected that the controversy will die down significantly in the coming years.