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The HPV Vaccine: Fighting Misconceptions for Cancer Prevention

The human papillomavirus, known as HPV, has an image problem.

It has long been viewed only as a sexually transmitted infection. For that reason, the effective and nationally available HPV vaccine is sometimes rejected by families who are unaware that the infection can later result in an elevated risk for certain cancers in boys and girls.

Recent updates to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommendations for the vaccine have been designed to change that.

“There is excellent evidence that this is a cancer prevention vaccine,” said Susan K. Fidler, MD, assistant director of the Family Medicine Residency Program at Abington - Jefferson Health. “And the new recommendations mean even more patients can be protected.”

What is HPV?

HPV is an very common virus. In fact, according to the CDC, nearly 80 million Americans currently have a strain of the infection, and about 14 million Americans will be infected this year.

HPV can be passed from one individual to another through skin-to-skin contact as well as by engaging in oral, anal and vaginal sex with an infected individual. In most cases, the virus will appear in the form of raised skin or warts before resolving itself within one to two years.

However, one in 10 cases of HPV can lead to an increased risk of cancer in men and women. This can include head, neck and anal cancers, as well as cervical and vaginal cancers in women and penile cancer in men.

The HPV Vaccine

First approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2006, the HPV vaccine has been approved for use in anyone under the age of 45, though it is ideal to receive it at a much younger age. The CDC’s current recommendation is before age 26.

“Just like any vaccine, the HPV vaccine contains a molecule that is similar to the actual virus,” said Dr. Fidler. “Introducing that molecule triggers an immune response in your body, building up antibodies to prevent a future infection.”

The vaccine is administered over two or three shots, depending on the age of the patient. Patients under the age of 15 only require two shots, as their immune system responds better. Those who are age 15 and older, require three shots.

“According to research, it’s ideal to get the shot around ages 11 or 12,” said Dr. Fidler, “But it's recommended that all men and women between the ages of 11 and 26 receive the vaccine.”

Fighting Misconceptions and the Stigma

Though the vaccine was initially promoted only for women and girls, up to 44 percent of HPV-related cancers are found in men, underlining the importance of vaccination in boys.

“Looking at this as a cancer prevention vaccine, it should absolutely be recommended to both genders,” said Dr. Fidler.

There was once a concern that the vaccine might make children more sexually active, but that theory has been disproven in several studies. Instead, parents should be comforted in knowing that their child can be protected from HPV long before they are exposed.

“Think of this as cancer prevention, not about sex or promiscuity,” said Dr. Fidler. “Just like any other illness, your doctor always wants you to be protected well before you’re exposed.”

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