HPV Vaccine Promises Protection for Future Generations

These days, if you say the word “vaccine” very loudly in a public place, ears will perk up and heads will inevitably turn. Vaccines are applauded and maligned, and have caused many a social media showdown in recent years.

Whether you’re the type to get them on schedule without fail or you gamble with the influenza virus every year, doctors say there’s one vaccine with the potential to do something none of the others can. On the market for the last decade, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine has been proven to prevent cancer.

Heather Bartos, M.D., chief of obstetrics and gynecology and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Denton, says the vaccine is crucial not only for what it can do but because it helps protect against a sexually transmitted disease that people often don’t even know they have.

“The HPV vaccine is the only known vaccine to prevent cancer,” she explains. “HPV is so common, and it’s not like other sexually transmitted diseases where someone might have symptoms such as sores or discharge to indicate there is an infection.

“There are many types of HPV … the ones that cause all warts including genital warts, as well as those that cause cancers such as mouth and throat cancer, anal cancer and cervical/vaginal cancer. The vaccine now gives a boost of immunity for nine different strains of HPV.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV has become so common that it is estimated that almost every sexually active male and female in the United States will get the virus at some point in life.

HPV is spread by vaginal, anal or oral sex, and is often impossible to detect because the infected person may have no visible symptoms. Symptoms may not appear for years, making it difficult to know when a person was infected and how many people he or she may have infected in the meantime.

Jessica Brown, M.D., OB/GYN and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Arlington Memorial, explains that various strains of the HPV virus affect the body differently and none of them are good.

“HPV is a viral infection that is the known cause of cervical cancers, vulvar cancers, vaginal cancer, anal cancer, penile cancer, oropharyngeal cancer and genital warts,” she says. “There are certain strains of the virus that are more oncogenic (more likely to cause cancer) and other strains that are less oncogenic (but cause genital warts).

“Gardasil®-9 is a vaccine series that is protective against nine strains of human papillomavirus. These strains include 6 and 11 (associated with genital warts), 16 and 18 (the strains associated with the vast majority of cervical cancers), and 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58 (also oncogenic strains of HPV).”

The CDC reports that during 2013-2014, as many as 42.5 percent of American adults between the ages of 18 and 59 had some form of genital HPV. It showed up in 45.2 percent of men and 39.9 percent of women. The occurrence of genital HPV among both men and women was lowest among Asian adults and highest among non-Hispanic African American adults, with Hispanic and non-Hispanic Caucasian adults falling in the middle and having approximately the same rate of occurrence.

Brown explains that while HPV is already prevalent among American adults, the best way to help future generations combat it is to vaccinate them now.

“There are three HPV vaccines on the market right now: Cervarix, Gardasil® and Gardasil®-9,” she says. “The vaccines are available to both girls and boys between the ages of nine and 26. For children between the ages of 9 and 14, it can be given as a two- or three-dose series. For children above age 14, the vaccine is given in a three-dose series.

“HPV is sexually transmitted and pervasive, so we recommend getting the vaccine around 11 or 12 years of age to ensure vaccination before the onset of sexual activity. I still recommend the vaccine to patients below the age of 26 even if they have already been sexually active.”

Bartos explains the different dosing recommendations and adds that in addition to providing protection against HPV and the cancers it causes, the vaccine is also being used in other ways.

“The dosing has now changed…it is two doses for girls (and boys) nine to 15, as long as the second dose is before the 15th birthday, and three doses for young women and men 15 to 26,” she says. “Getting all doses is essential for maximum protection. There are few side effects, namely redness and inflammation at the injection site, like any vaccine can cause.

“Some cancer centers are even using the HPV vaccine as adjuvant chemotherapy for women with high-risk dysplasia or cervical cancer. I’ve had some patients who are older than 26 (mainly in their 40s) pay for the vaccine if they have persistent cervical dysplasia.”

HPV may be pervasive among adults, but parents have the opportunity to protect their children from this virus that has the potential to do lasting damage. For more information about the HPV vaccine, visit the CDC’s Q&A page for parents or contact your Texas Health family physician or gynecologist.

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