Have you been vaccinated for HPV? If you’re, say, 30 or younger, there’s a strong chance you got this vaccine as a teen or tween. The first HPV vaccine was approved by the FDA in 2006 and was recommended for both boys and girls, ages 11 and 12. But if you didn’t get the vaccine, you may have heard that it’s too late — HPV is super-common, so you’ve probably already been infected, right?
Actually, experts are reversing their stance on whether adults should get immunized. There’s a growing body of evidence that the vaccine will benefit adults (and maybe save their lives), even if they’ve been sexually active for years, and even if they know for a fact they’ve already been infected with HPV.
Why It’s Not Too Late to Be Vaccinated
It’s true that Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S., with more than 43% of American adults infected with genital HPV. It’s believed that most people contract HPV shortly after they begin having sex.
So why should you get vaccinated for HPV if you’re all grown up and probably already have it? Even if you know you’ve already been exposed, you likely don’t know which strains of the virus you’ve encountered. The current HPV vaccine protects against 9 strains, so you can still get protection from the strains you haven’t been exposed to.
Throat and Anal Cancer On the Rise
Although most cases of HPV resolve on their own, certain strains of the virus persist and can cause cancers. While HPV-related cervical and vaginal cancer rates have decreased in recent years, cases of head and neck cancers and anal cancer have increased. HPV is responsible for about 19000 cases of throat cancer each year, and 6800 cases of anal cancer.
Why are rates of cervical cancer decreasing while head and neck and anal cancer on are becoming more common? In large part because people with a cervix can protect themselves against cervical cancer through regular screenings (via Pap tests, HPV testing, or both), but there is no screening for throat or rectal cancers. That’s one reason vaccination is so important, and why the FDA recently approved the HPV vaccine Gardasil 9 to prevent head and neck cancer, for people between 9 and 45.
HPV Vaccine Recommendations for Adults
If you haven’t been vaccinated for HPV, or aren’t sure, first talk to your parents and see if they can tell you. If you have not been vaccinated, then talk to your healthcare provider about whether it makes sense for you. They will be able to take your individual risk factors and age into consideration. The current recommendation is that all adults up to the age of 45 get vaccinated.
Getting the vaccine will protect you from dangerous throat and rectal cancers that too often go undetected.
Finally, and most surprisingly, studies are finding that even women who have high-grade cervical lesions (meaning they are close to cervical cancer), experience significantly lower recurrence rates if they get the HPV vaccine along with other treatments. That’s the finding of a study of almost 3000 women done at Johns Hopkins University, which found a more than a 50% decrease recurrence rate for high grade disease caused by HPV in people who had the vaccine. Since their HPV had already caused lesions that were close to cancerous, it’s surprising and exciting that the HPV vaccine still provides benefit. And it indicates that people who haven’t been vaccinated would absolutely benefit from it, at any age up to 45
The conclusion is very clear. Not only does the vaccine prevent HPV-related cancers in the first place, it also decreases the incidence of recurrent disease (both high and low grade) in women with HPV-related abnormalities. Want to know more? Check out my personal blog, Wine and Gyn.
About the Author
Betty Acker, MD, is an OB-Gyn with more than 30 years of experience practicing in both military and civilian settings. Dr. Acker writes the Wine and Gyn blog.
Photo courtesy of Heather Hazzan, SELF Magazine
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