Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus that infects epithelial cells, including skin and mucosa (such as the throat and anogenital region). HPV can be spread by any close skin-to-skin contact.
Long-term HPV infections are responsible for nearly 30,000 new cases of cancer in the US each year. These include not just cervical cancer but other cancers of the anogenital region as well as the throat. Even though about 90% of HPV infections are cleared by the immune system, this can still leave more than 2 million women with long-term infections that can lead to cancer or other health problems. We do not know who will be in the 90% that can clear HPV infections, so we recommend that everyone be vaccinated against HPV before they may even be exposed.
All 11 and 12 year olds should receive HPV vaccine. We give the vaccine at these ages for three important reasons. First, getting your tween fully vaccinated before they turn 15 means they only need two HPV vaccine shots. If you wait until they are 15, they will need three shots. Second, HPV vaccine makes a stronger immune response when given younger, which means better protection if you do not wait to vaccinate. Third, getting all three recommended vaccines (meningitis, HPV, and Tdap) at the same doctors visit means fewer visits for you and your tween. Long-term studies have shown that even when given at this age, the immune response against HPV infection is consistent even up to 10 years. And we are continuing to monitor this to make sure it lasts even longer.
Effectiveness & Safety
In clinical trials with tens of thousands of people, HPV vaccine was over 98% effective in preventing cervical and other HPV-related pre-cancers. Preventing these pre-cancers is important because they are a necessary step to the development of cancer. Prior to availability of HPV vaccine, over 11% of 14-19 year-old females were infected with one of HPV strains prevented by the vaccine. In the first three years after HPV vaccine availability, this dropped to 5%. HPV vaccine is well-tested for safety, including the monitoring of tens of thousands of people in the clinical trials, and hundreds of thousand of vaccine recipients since the vaccine was recommended. The most common side effects after HPV vaccination are pain and redness at the injection site, fever, and headache. Just like for many other vaccines, some people who get HPV vaccine may feel light-headed or faint. We recommend staying seated after vaccination to help prevent fainting or falling. HPV vaccine has been recommended for tweens for more than a decade, and has been routinely studied during that time. In one study of over 600,000 doses of HPV vaccine, there were no associations found with any of 8 conditions studied, including Guillain-Barre syndrome, seizures, or allergic reactions. In two other studies of over 300,000 HPV vaccine doses, the only conditions found to be associated with vaccination were fainting and skin infections where the vaccine was given.
HPV vaccine is the best way to prevent cervical and other HPV-related cancers. Some cancers prevented by HPV vaccine can also be prevented through the use of Pap smears. However, those tests do not work to prevent all HPV-related cancers. We know that some parents may feel that 11-12 years old is too young for the HPV vaccine. However, the long-term cancer protection that is afforded by early vaccination is the best reason to have your child vaccinated today. We know that some parents may be concerned about HPV vaccination and sexual activity. In three separate studies of nearly 470,000 tweens and teenagers, there has been no increase in markers of sexual activity after HPV vaccination.
HPV vaccine is one of the most well-studied vaccines, and has consistently been found to be safe and effective in preventing HPV infections and the diseases they can cause. HPV vaccine works best when it is given early, preferably at 11-12 years of age. Getting your child vaccinated against HPV today is a safe and effective way to prevent cancer.