Living with cancer blog

HPV vaccine making a difference in infection rates

By Sheryl M. Ness, R.N. June 29, 2013

A new cervical cancer prevention vaccine, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, has been available to the public since 2006.

Two cervical cancer vaccines — Gardasil and Cervarix — have Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval in the United States. The vaccine protects against the more dangerous strains of HPV virus that causes almost all cervical cancers.

Researchers have found that since the introduction of the HPV vaccine, infection rates have dropped by almost 50 percent. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted virus, infecting about 14 million people every year. In women, the HPV virus most commonly causes cervical cancer; in men it's more common to cause throat cancer.

Recent news reports about actor Michael Douglas heightened awareness of the importance of preventing HPV in adolescents and young adults.

The cervical cancer vaccine is recommended for girls and boys ages 11 to 12, although it may be given as early as age 9. It's important for boys and girls to receive the vaccine before they have sexual contact and are exposed to HPV. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that both women and men through age 26 receive the HPV vaccine.

Once infected with HPV, the vaccine may not be as effective.

Both vaccines are given as a series of three injections over a six-month period. The second dose is given one to two months after the first dose, and the third dose is given six months after the first dose.

The HPV vaccine protects against 70 percent of the virus types that cause cervical cancer. HPV can also cause warts, genital warts, and other cancers — such as the vagina, anus, and cancers of the head and neck. It's important to still see your healthcare provider for regular pelvic exams and pap tests even if you have received the vaccine.

The HPV vaccine has been a controversial subject, primarily because it prevents a sexually transmitted virus, which in turn prevents the development of cancer. Safety of the vaccine has also been the topic of much discussion. However, despite the fact that both the FDA and CDC report no dangerous side effects, fears continue.

Researchers state that the reduction in infection rates is promising and will eventually make a difference in the rate of cervical and other HPV-related cancers. Public health officials report the U.S. rates of vaccination (one-third of teenage girls have been fully vaccinated) are lower than in other countries such as Denmark and Britain which have above 80 percent vaccination rates.


Sheryl M. Ness, R.N.

June 29, 2013