The following are common questions young women or parents of girls or boys might ask their primary care physician about the HPV vaccine, followed by helpful responses. After you review these, consult with your physician about whether the vaccine is right for you or for a member of your family.

Q: What is HPV?
A. Human papillomavirus virus, or HPV, is the name for a group of more than 100 types of viruses. More than 40 types of HPV can be passed through sexual contact. The types of HPV that infect the genital area are called genital HPV. More than half of sexually active people will have HPV at some point in their lives, but most people never know it. This is because HPV most often has no symptoms and goes away on its own.

Q. How do women get HPV—and does it lead to cancer?
A. Genital HPV is passed by skin-to-skin and genital contact and is most often passed during vaginal and anal sex. Although much less common, it is possible to pass HPV during oral sex or hand-to-genital contact.

Some types of HPV can cause cervical cancer. These types of HPV are called high-risk. Having high-risk HPV is not the same as having cervical cancer, but high-risk HPV can lead to cancer. Most often, high-risk HPV causes no health problems and goes away on its own. High-risk HPV cases that do not go away are the biggest risk factor for cervical cancer. If you have high-risk HPV, your doctor can look for changes on your cervix during Pap tests. Changes can be treated to try to prevent cervical cancer. Be sure to have regular Pap tests so changes can be found early.

Q. Can men get high-risk HPV that leads to cancer?
A. Yes. Men can contract oncogenic types of HPV that cause cancer of the anus, penis, mouth, and larynx.

Q. Why should I get the HPV vaccine?
A. Two vaccines (Cervarix and Gardasil) can protect girls and young women against the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers. The vaccines work best when given before a person's first sexual contact, when she could be exposed to HPV. Both vaccines are recommended for 11- and 12-year-old girls, but the vaccines can also be given to girls as young as 9 and to women through age 26 who did not get any or all of the shots when they were younger. The HPV vaccine is given in a series of three shots. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that the second dose be given one to two months after the first, and the third dose be given six months after the first dose. It is best to use the same vaccine brand for all three doses. The vaccine does not replace the need to wear condoms or take additional precautions to lower your risk of getting other types of HPV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Q. How does getting an HPV vaccine at ages 11 or 12 fit with other vaccine recommendations?
A. Doctors recommend health checkups for preteens. The first dose of an HPV vaccine should be given to girls aged 11 or 12 years during a preteen health checkup. The first dose of HPV vaccine can also be given to boys during their preteen checkups. Two other vaccines, Tdap and the meningococcal conjugate vaccine, are recommended for preteens in addition to an annual influenza vaccination. During one visit, either HPV vaccine can be given safely alongside these other preteen vaccines.

Q. If I am exposed to HPV, but not high-risk, what will happen to me?
A. You may develop genital warts—but not always. In fact, most people with low-risk HPV never know they are infected. If you do get warts, some are so small you can't see them. They can be flat and flesh-colored or look bumpy like cauliflower. They often form in clusters or groups and may itch, burn, or cause discomfort. They can form weeks, months, or years after sexual contact with an infected person. In women, genital warts can grow:

  • Inside and around the outside of the vagina
  • On the vulva ("lips" or opening to the vagina), cervix, or groin
  • In or around the anus

Rarely, genital warts grow in the mouth or throat of a person who had oral sex with an infected person.

Q. How can you tell the difference between high-risk and low-risk types of HPV?
A. Visually, warts may be present, but this is not an indicator as to whether one is infected with HPV that is low-risk or high-risk. Regular Pap tests for girls and women can assess for the presence of abnormal cells; HPV DNA testing (which is not recommended for teens or young women) is also available.

Q. Do I still need a Pap test if I got the HPV vaccine?
A. Yes. There are three reasons why:

  1. The vaccine does not protect against all HPV types that cause cancer.
  2. Women who do not receive all the vaccine doses (or at the right time) might not be fully protected.
  3. Women may not fully benefit from the vaccine if they received it after being exposed to one or more of the four HPV types: types 6 and 11, which cause 90 percent or more of genital warts, and types 16 and 18, which cause 70 percent of cervical cancer.

Q: Why is Gardasil not on the immunization schedule for boys and men?
A: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not add this vaccine to the recommended immunization schedules for males in these age groups because studies suggest that the best way to prevent the most diseases due to HPV is to vaccinate as many girls and women as possible. Although the vaccine protects boys against genital warts, the Center felt that the cost of the vaccine could not justify its use in all boys for wart prevention. Data will soon be considered about the benefit for cancer prevention in males, and these data may lead to a change in the HPV recommendation for males. Parents of boys can decide if Gardasil is right for their sons by talking with their sons’ primary care physicians. Young men can also discuss this vaccine with their doctors.

Q. Are the HPV vaccines safe and effective?
A. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has licensed the vaccines as safe and effective. Both vaccines have been used in hundreds of thousands of people around the world. These studies showed no serious side effects, but common, mild side effects included pain where the shot was given, fever, and syncope. As with all vaccines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration continue to monitor safety very carefully.

Source: CDC. HPV Vaccines—Questions & Answers. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd-vac/hpv/vac-faqs.htm.


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