Recent measles outbreaks have brought attention to a growing cultural hesitation toward getting vaccinations. But there continues to be scientific evidence that when a vaccine has gone through the rigorous process of earning the approval of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the benefit of being vaccinated far outweighs the risk.
When it comes to the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, your benefit could be avoiding cancer.
HPV is not just one virus but a group of more than 200 related viruses. About 40 of the most common HPV viruses are easily spread through sexual conduct.
HPV viruses can cause HPV infection, which can lead to genital warts and cancer, including cervical, anal, oropharyngeal (cancer of the mouth and throat), vaginal and vulvar cancers.
"HPV infection is extremely common, and nearly all sexually active Americans will be infected with an HPV virus in their lifetimes," said Abhigyan Banka, MD, with Franciscan Physician Network Beech Grove Family Medicine.
The only HPV vaccine available in the United States is Gardasil 9. The vaccine is created with proteins that mimic HPV, which stimulate the body to produce antibodies. When a person comes in contact with an HPV virus, those antibodies bind to the virus and prevent it from infecting cells.
Gardasil 9 has been proven highly effective at preventing HPV infection caused by nine strands of HPV, seven of which can cause cancer. By preventing those infections, the vaccine effectively prevents an estimated 90 percent of HPV-induced cancers.
"We encourage every young woman to be vaccinated against HPV," said Dr. Banka. "And every young man, too. The HPV vaccine is one of the medical community's safest and most effective ways of preventing cancer."
To be most effective, the HPV vaccine should be administered before an individual becomes sexually active. The CDC recommends vaccinations for girls and boys at age 11 or 12.
Even if you've been sexually active for years, there is still some benefit to getting vaccinated until the FDA-approved age of 45. Why? Because while you may already have been exposed to one or more types of the virus, you may be exposed to many additional types in the future. The vaccine will protect you against those.
The vaccine will not treat or clear any HPV infections you already have.
In 2018, the FDA expanded its recommendations for the HPV vaccine. It now recommends that all women under the age of 45 get vaccinated.
"But for women older than 45, there appears to be little benefit, simply due to the very high likelihood that sexually active women have already been exposed to many types of virus, said Dr. Banka. "HPV is so prevalent in this country that nearly all Americans will have it at some point in their lifetimes."
Certain people should not get the HPV vaccine, including those who are pregnant or have immunocompromising diseases like HIV. If you are breastfeeding, you may safely receive the vaccine.
Additionally, the CDC recommends that people who have had a life-threatening allergic reaction to any ingredient in an HPV vaccine or who have an allergy to yeast not get the HPV vaccine.
The CDC says that side effects of HPV vaccine include: