Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted disease that affects about 80 percent of people and can cause several types of cancer if not cleared. The HPV vaccine was originally developed to vaccinate children before they had potential exposure to the virus and was licensed for people ages 9 to 26, but it is now recommended for men and women through age 45.
“Anyone is a good candidate for the HPV vaccine, whether you’ve been exposed to HPV yet or not,” says Leslie Clark, MD, UNC Medical Center gynecologic oncologist.
This is because the vaccine prevents nine strains of HPV, including those that cause genital warts, respiratory warts, cervical cancer, vulvar cancer, anal cancer, penile cancer, and head and neck cancers. So even if you’re already sexually active, it doesn’t mean you’ve been exposed to all nine strains. Getting protection from even some of the strains can potentially prevent you from getting cancer.
“If you get the vaccine and you haven’t been exposed, it will protect you if you’re exposed in the future,” says UNC Medical Center head and neck cancer specialist Wendell G. Yarbrough, MD.
The Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine for men and women ages 27 to 45. Dr. Clark says the expanded age recommendation is important because not enough young people are vaccinated.
“The same day that I learned about this FDA expanded indication, I also had an article in my inbox saying that they’re going to eradicate cervical cancer in Australia,” Dr. Clark says. “They’re having that success because Australia has a mandatory HPV vaccination policy, and they vaccinate nearly all young men and women in their teens. It’s sad that the United States has to vaccinate even older people because we do such a poor job getting our children vaccinated against this. We’re still missing out on people that could prevent cancer.”
HPV causes nearly all cervical cancers, 90 percent of anal cancers, and most penile, vaginal and vulvar cancers. HPV is also a major cause of cancers of the head and neck, specifically tonsil- and tongue-based cancers.
“Head and neck cancer is about three times more frequent in men than in women. So vaccinating males is very important for us,” Dr. Yarbrough says.
In fact, oropharyngeal cancer, cancer in the tonsil and tongue region, now is more common than cervical cancer when related to this virus, says UNC Medical Center head and neck cancer specialist Trevor G. Hackman, MD. “The Gardasil vaccine for HPV cancer can eliminate a good portion of the current oropharyngeal cancer that we’re seeing.”
Younger people need two shots, but older teens and adults will need three, spaced a few months apart. Doctors recommend vaccinating children at age 11 or 12.
“Our immune systems are just more robust when we’re young, and so the ideal time to immunize people is when they’re young,” Dr. Clark says. “And so as they get older, the two doses probably aren’t enough and when at all possible, our goal is to get three in.”
If you’d like to get the HPV vaccine, talk to your doctor. If you don’t have one, find a doctor near you.