An HPV vaccine, which can help prevent cervical and other types of cancers, is now approved for men and women between the ages of 27 and 45.
With the recent expansion of the age group approved for this vaccine, you may be wondering if you should get it even though you’ve already been exposed to HPV, a common sexually transmitted virus.
The short answer, according to doctors: Yes.
That’s because Human Papillomavirus has dozens of strains, and the vaccine could protect you against some common types. These are strains you haven’t yet been exposed to and are most likely to cause cancer or genital warts. This could be especially important for sexually active men or women who have left monogamous relationships or marriages, or for those who weren’t vaccinated when Gardasil, the vaccine made by Merck, first came out.
“I strongly advocate my patients get the ‘cancer prevention vaccine,’” says Dr. John Thoppil, an OB-GYN at River Place OB/GYN in Austin, Texas. “How many times can we say we can prevent cancer with a simple shot?”
HPV Is A Common Virus
With roughly 150 different strains, HPV is a common virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, the CDC says HPV is so widespread that “nearly all men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives.”
Enter the HPV vaccine.
Gardasil, the original HPV vaccine that was approved by the FDA in 2006, was capable of protecting against four common strains of HPV. In 2014, the Federal Drug Administration approved Gardasil 9, which replaced the original Gardasil and covers the same four HPV types as the original vaccine, plus five more HPV types.
Up until now, though, the vaccine was approved only for those between the ages of 9 and 26. The idea? Get youth vaccinated before they are sexually active and exposed to HPV. The vaccine is not effective against the strains to which you’ve already been exposed.
The CDC has stated that HPV vaccination prior to becoming infected with the HPV types covered by the vaccine has the potential to prevent more than 90 percent of the instances of cancers those strains cause, or 31,200 cases every year, from ever developing, according to Dr. Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.
The FDA’s most recent approval was based on a study that involved women between ages 27 to 45 that showed the original vaccine was 88 percent effective in preventing persistent HPV infections, genital warts, vulvar and vaginal precancers, cervical precancers and cervical cancers related to the viruses protected by the vaccine.
Gardasil 9 Prevents More Than Cervical Cancers
The Gardasil 9 vaccine was invented to provide protection against specific subtypes of the HPV virus that are correlated with the development of not just cervical cancer, but also vulvar, vaginal, anal, oral and penile cancer, explains Dr. Kecia Gaither, M.D., MPH, FACOG, double board-certified in OB-GYN and Maternal Fetal Medicine and Director of Perinatal Services at NYC Health + Hospitals/Lincoln.
About 14 million Americans become infected with HPV every year, and about 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer caused by certain HPV viruses. While doctors routinely screen for cervical cancer, there are no recommended cancer screening tests for the other types of cancers caused by HPV infections, according to the CDC. These cancers may not be detected until they cause health problems.
“Expanding the age of immunization with Gardasil 9 was felt to allow older individuals the same preventative measures of contracting HPV related cancers as in younger individuals,” Gaither says. “It’s an expansion of prevention.”
Risks Associated With The Vaccine
So, you may be wondering if there are any risks associated with the vaccine.
Thoppil says that like any medication, the vaccine can cause an allergic reaction. The most common serious reaction to the vaccine has been fainting, he says. But, in his opinion, the risk of an allergic reaction is negligible given that the lifetime risk of contracting HPV is so high.
Other common side effects of the HPV vaccine include pain, redness or swelling in the arm where the shot was given, according to the CDC. Other side effects could include fever, headaches, nausea and muscle or joint pain.
With the recent expansion of Gardasil 9’s availability, it’s a good time to talk with your physician about getting the HPV vaccine.