Most people (regardless of gender) will be infected with at least one type of the human papilloma virus at some point in their lives. There are ~14 million new infections in the US each year and nearly 80 million people are currently infected. Infection is most common in the teen years and early 20’s. Most will never know that they’ve been infected.

This virus can lead to cancer. Each year an estimated 26,000 new cancers are attributed to HPV with 9,000 of those in men. The different types of cancer caused by HPV include cancers of the head and neck, cervix, penis, anus, vulva, and vagina. HPV also causes genital warts, which can lead to painful removal of warts and other complications.

The great news is there is a vaccine that protects against 9 strains of HPV most likely to cause cancer and warts. The vaccine is recommended at the pediatric well child visits between ages 11-12 years. At this age, the body makes the best response to the vaccine, which means that if it’s given on time, people will have the best protection against this cancer causing virus. Here are a few more things to know:

  1. The HPV vaccine should be given before an individual is ever exposed to the virus. It can be given as early as age 9 and as late as age 26.
  2. If given before age 15, only 2 doses of the vaccine are needed. At (or after) age 15, 3 doses are needed for the best protection.
  3. The vaccine is made from a virus like particle. This means it is not going to lead to infection and the vaccine causes production of higher levels of antibodies than a natural infection (better immunity!).
  4. The HPV vaccine is safe. The most common side effect of the vaccine is a sore arm. Fainting with the shots has also been reported (though these are also side effects of the other vaccines offered during the tween and teen years. Those other vaccinations include Tdap or tetanus/whooping cough and meningitis).
  5. This vaccine protects against cancer! The only other vaccine to do this is the hepatitis B vaccine.
  6. This vaccine is not new. It was released in the US in 2006 so there is over a decade of data available on how well it protects, changes in disease burden since its release, and safety.

A concern I hear from parents is that the HPV vaccine isn’t required for school, so it must not be needed. One main difference between HPV and other vaccine preventable diseases is that it is not spread in the same way. It’s not spread through sneezing, coughing, or sharing saliva like measles, mumps, rubella, pneumonia, and the flu so the chance of getting infected in the school setting is not the same. However, it is extremely common and most people are likely to be infected at some point in their life.

The next time you see your child’s health care provider, ask about the HPV vaccine. Sometimes updates in medicine are slow to be known, so if they don’t know about the HPV vaccine, please do share what you’ve learned.

Check out the Center for Disease Control’s page on HPV for more information here.