HPV: “Should I get vaccinated?”

HPV (human papillomavirus) is the most common sexually transmitted virus and can infect both men and women. High-risk strands of the virus have been linked to multiple cancers including cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers for women and esophageal, penile, and anal cancers for males.  Low-risk HPV strands are linked to genital wart infections in both males and females. HPV is spread through sexual contact, either skin-to-skin or genital intercourse. Most men and women will be infected with HPV at some point in their lifetime; however, typically with a healthy immune system, most people will clear the virus on their own. In the case that a person does not clear the virus, persistent HPV can result in one of the above-mentioned cancerous processes.

The Gardasil – 9 ® vaccine is a vaccination series that targets 9 of the highest risk and most common strands of HPV – types 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58.  HPV types 6 & 11 are known to cause up to 90% of genital wart infections in men and women and HPV types 16 & 18 are responsible for 70% of all cervical cancers in women. The remaining 5 HPV strands in the vaccine series are known to be other “high-risk” strands of HPV that can increase risk for disease and cancer in both men and women. The HPV vaccine series is recommended to begin between ages 11 and 12 and is a series of two injections. The second injection is administered 6 to 12 months after the first injection. The vaccine is most effective if given prior to initiating sexual activity. It is now approved for men and women up to age 45 to receive the vaccine series. It is important to discuss specific immunization schedules with a healthcare provider depending on when a person decides to initiate the series.

Women are routinely screened for high-risk HPV after the age of 30 with their Pap smears. Since it is well-known that high risk HPV is the leading cause for cervical cancers, this screening has served as an essential resource for early detection for cervical cancers. The prevalence of “high-risk” HPV-related cancers in males is less common, and therefore there is not routine HPV screening for men. However, it is important to remember anal, penile, and oropharyngeal cancers in males have been linked to persistent HPV infections. Although HPV-related cancers are more common in women, it is still recommended both men and women are vaccinated against HPV to promote the concept of “herd immunity” and protect a larger portion of the population from HPV-related diseases. Furthermore, non-cancerous diseases such as genital warts are often due to low-risk HPV and both men and women benefit from protection against these strands by receiving the vaccine.

The overall safety profile for the HPV vaccine series has shown the benefits of receiving the vaccine greatly outweigh the risks. The most common adverse effects after receiving the injection were mild injection site irritation such as pain, swelling or redness. The patient may also experience some muscle soreness or generalized discomfort near the injection site. It is important to discuss with a healthcare provider any allergies or previous adverse reactions to vaccinations prior to receiving the injection.

Overall, the HPV vaccine series provides protection for both men and women against cancers and diseases that are caused by persistent HPV infections. Please talk to a healthcare provider about specific questions and concerns regarding the vaccine series.