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HPV vaccines in the news

Have you seen HPV vaccines in the news lately?

These are the vaccines that help protect against certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV), a type of sexually-transmitted disease. And there’s quite a bit of controversy about them. Are they safe? Do they have side effects? Should all girls be vaccinated? What about boys?

Today we’ll talk a bit about these vaccines and try to separate fact from fiction.

What is HPV?

First, we need to know about what we’re protecting against. HPV is actually a blanket term for more than 150 types of human papillomavirus. Over 40 of them can be transmitted sexually, usually through skin-to-skin contact in the genital, anal, and mouth areas.

HPV is very common. Many people who are infected don’t even know they have it. Most of the time, there are no symptoms and our bodies easily clear the infection.

But sometimes, persistent (long-lasting) “high risk” types of HPV cause problems, from genital warts to cervical cancer. Anal, oral, and penile cancers have also been linked to HPV, along with vulvar and vaginal cancers.

What are the HPV vaccines?

Currently, two types of HPV vaccines are available.

  • Gardasil, manufactured by Merck, protects against four different types of HPV: 6, 11, 16, and 18. Types 16 and 18 cause about 70% of cervical cancers. Types 6 and 11 cause about 90% of genital warts in both men and women. Gardasil protects against some vulvar, vaginal, and anal cancers.

    Gardasil is the only HPV vaccine approved for boys and young men.
  • Cervarix, manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline, protects against HPV types 16 and 18 (linked to cervical cancer) but not types 6 and 11 (linked to genital warts). Studies of Cervarix have not investigated whether it protects against vulvar, vaginal, or anal cancers.

Keep in mind that neither vaccine protects against all forms of HPV.

How are the vaccines administered?

Both vaccines are given in three doses, spaced out during six months. They are injected into muscle tissue.

Do you really need to get all three shots?

While there is some evidence that one or two doses may protect against certain types of HPV to some extent, the safest route for full protection is all three shots. This may change with future research.

Do the vaccines treat HPV infection or cancer?

No. The vaccines protect against certain types of HPV that can cause cancer and, in the case of Gardasil, genital warts.

Are the vaccines safe? What are the side effects?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved both Gardasil and Cervarix after extensive testing and study and has deemed both to be safe. Gardasil was tested on 29,000 males and females before it was approved. Cervarix was tested on about 30,000 females.

The most common side effects are pain at the injection site, fever, dizziness, and nausea. Some people feel faint after receiving vaccines. People receiving HPV vaccines are usually advised to sit for 15 minutes after the injection to make sure everything is okay.

Both the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control regularly monitor the vaccines’ safety.

Why should children get the vaccine? Most aren’t sexually active yet.

Both vaccines are recommended for girls who are 11 or 12 years old, although they can be given up to age 25 or 26. Pregnant girls and women should not be given either vaccination.

While it’s hard to imagine a girl that young getting a sexually-transmitted disease, both vaccines work best if given before a person becomes sexually active. HPV can be transmitted at any time, including a first sexual experience. If a girl already has a type of HPV that the vaccine targets, the vaccine won’t be as effective for that type. (That doesn’t mean, however, that the vaccine won’t do any good. It can still protect against other types.)

What about boys? Should I vaccinate my son?

Right now, only Gardasil has been approved for males between the ages of 9 and 26. The CDC has not issued an official recommendation for boys, but this could change at a CDC advisory committee meeting to be held in October 2011.

Even without the recommendation, there are some advantages to vaccinating boys and young men with Gardasil. The vaccine can help prevent genital warts and anal cancer.

Vaccinating boys can also slow down the transmission rate of HPV. If males are protected against certain types of HPV, so are their partners, if they are in monogamous relationships. Having the vaccine makes it less likely that males will transmit certain types of HPV to their partners.

How can I learn more?

Talk to your pediatrician. S/he can advise you on the best course of action for your child. S/he can also suggest ways to discuss the vaccine with your child, especially if your child is just beginning to learn about sex.