What You Need to Know About the Cancer-Preventing HPV Vaccine
Published: Sept. 5, 2019
Vaccines have long been key to keeping people healthy, but there’s an important one you may not be familiar with.
The HPV vaccine can prevent the spread of human papillomavirus, which can cause several types of cancer.
“HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States,” said Dr. Susan Westcott, who specializes in the gynecologic treatment of teens and adolescents at Methodist Physicians Clinic 192Dodge. “Almost everyone is sexually active later in life, and this vaccination in adolescence is a safe and effective way to protect yourself against HPV-related diseases.”
HPV is most commonly spread by direct contact of infected skin or mucous membranes during vaginal, anal or oral sex. It’s so common that nearly everyone will get at least one type of HPV in their lives.
People with HPV infections usually have no symptoms. As a result, they may not be aware they have or are spreading the infection. In most cases, an infection is cleared by the body’s immune system and doesn’t cause health problems. But in some cases it can cause:
- Oral, oropharyngeal (throat) or genital warts
- Cervical, vaginal, vulvar, penile, anal or oropharyngeal cancer
Preventing an infection
Abstaining from sexual activity is the best way to prevent an HPV infection. You can lower the risk of infection by:
- Getting the HPV vaccine
- Using condoms whenever you engage in sexual activity
- Limiting your number of sexual partners
Benefits of the vaccine
There are a number of benefits of the HPV vaccine, and it’s even more effective when given earlier. Younger adolescents develop higher levels of the protective antibody, which:
- Protects against nine common HPV virus strains
- Protects against oral and genital warts
- Decreases the risk of many cancers
“Numerous studies have shown the effectiveness of the vaccine and its effects on cervical and anorectal cancers,” said Dr. Andrew Coughlin, a surgeon with Methodist’s Head and Neck Surgical Oncology Clinic. “We do all sorts of things to prevent cancer – smoking cessation, eating healthy and protecting ourselves from the sun. It’s a no-brainer to be able to give your child the vaccine and prevent them from developing cancer as an adult.”
Who needs the vaccine?
Everyone ages 9 to 45 should consider getting the HPV vaccine. While the vaccine helps prevent HPV infections, it doesn’t treat them. Even adults in monogamous relationships should consider the vaccine because relationships sometimes end and new partners could lead to HPV exposure.
Children under 15 need two doses of the vaccine, while anyone older needs three doses.
Some common questions and concerns patients and families have about the vaccine include:
Is it safe?
The HPV vaccine is over 10 years old and has been tested for safety and effectiveness. It’s been administered to millions of people worldwide.
Are there side effects?
The most common side effects are soreness or redness at the injection site. Dizziness, fainting, nausea and headache are possible, but the vaccine’s benefits outweigh any risk of side effects.
Isn’t it only for people 26 and younger?
In the past year, the vaccine was approved for people ages 27-45.
Does it promote sexual activity in youths?
Some parents have reservations because:
- Their child isn’t sexually active
- They don’t want their child thinking they have a free pass for sexual activity
- They don’t like thinking about their child eventually becoming sexually active
“I emphasize how all of us are immunized for tetanus, but no one thinks that that means we can go step on rusty nails for fun,” said Dr. Matthew Gibson, a pediatrician at Methodist Physicians Clinic Regency. “A child should have the HPV vaccine when they’re younger – years before they’re sexually active – so they're fully immunized when they start that chapter of their life.”
Where can I get the HPV vaccine?
- Vaccinations are available at doctor offices, community health clinics, school-based health centers and health departments.
- To find a Methodist primary care physician, go to mhsdoctors.com or contact the Methodist Health System referral line at (402) 354-8888 or (800) 958-6498.
- Low-cost health care services may also be available through the Methodist Community Health Clinic at 208 S. 26th Ave. in Omaha. Call 402-354-3198 for more information.
This is too important to put off or ignore. To learn more about the HPV vaccine, go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website at cdc.gov/hpv or talk to your primary care provider.