First, let’s get through some basic science…
HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) is a sexually transmitted virus which will infect over 50% of men and women at some point in their lives. HPV causes Genital Warts, as well as a variety of different types of cancer. Because it causes the greatest concern, and in the interest of brevity, I’ll concentrate on Cervical Cancer.
Once infected with HPV, the cells of the cervix undergo changes in their appearance and growth patterns (a.k.a. “Dysplasia”). Cervical dysplasia, if left unchecked, can eventually become Cervical Cancer – this is why you will sometimes hear dysplasia referred to as “Pre-Cancer”. When you get your Pap smear every year, what we are looking for is evidence of dysplasia. When such evidence is found, it can usually be treated before it becomes a cancer.
In 2006, the first preventative vaccine against HPV was approved by the FDA (a second one is available since 2009). This means that we now have tools to help prevent HPV infection in the first place. The ideal time to receive a vaccine that prevents a sexually-transmitted disease is before a woman is sexually active, so the vaccine is approved for women ages 9 to 26. It is given in 3 doses over a 6 month period. The vaccine protects against those types of the HPV virus which are responsible for up to 70% of all cervical cancers. Since no vaccine can protect against all the different types of HPV virus (and there are many), it is still recommended to get regular Pap smears even if you’ve received the vaccine.
A quick Google search will reveal several stories of negative side effects to the HPV vaccine. (In fact, there are several blogs dedicated solely to this topic!) There are 2 things you need to remember:
1. You won’t see people commenting on their “positive” experiences with HPV vaccination. By far, the most common experience with the HPV vaccine is 3 injections with a very small needle and no side effects. Essentially, a “positive” experience means nothing happened. That makes for pretty dull reading.
2. Vaccines should be considered in the same way as any prescribed therapy. They have their benefits, and their risks. The main benefit of HPV vaccination is a decreased chance of getting cervical cancer. The risks are actually similar to any vaccine currently on the market. Most are mild and self-limiting side effects (such as a sore arm or low-grade fever, for example).
Talk to your gynecologist about the HPV vaccines currently available, and whether you are a candidate.