From age requirements to rare side effects, women’s health nurse practitioners share the facts on the vaccine that guards against cervical cancer and more.
The HPV vaccine, GARDASIL®9, was FDA-approved in 2014 and has been administered for almost two decades. However, controversy over the vaccine’s safety and efficacy has resurfaced in recent years.
1. You can’t receive the HPV vaccine if you’ve already been infected.
If you already have HPV, the vaccine can still protect against various strains that you’re vulnerable to, says Ferris. There are more than 100 types of HPV; the vaccine covers nine –hence the name – of the most prominent strains, which are linked to nearly 90% of cervical cancers, as well as other complications, like genital warts, explains Hughes-Brown.
2. You can’t receive the HPV vaccine past age 12.
Whether you’ve already been exposed or not, the vaccine can be given well after teenage years, continues Hughes-Brown. While the CDC recommends a two-dose regimen between the ages of 11-12 for the most effective prevention, it can be given starting at age nine, up until 45, adds Ferris. (Three-dose regimens are administered for anyone 15 and older.) Naturally, if you’ve been sexually active, it might not be as preventative, but can still help substantially.
3. The HPV vaccine only protects girls.
Anyone can contract and transmit HPV through sexual contact. Because it’s typically asymptomatic, neither partner would know if they had HPV or were spreading it, says Hughes-Brown. If both consenting parties are vaccinated, it only doubles the protection.
HPV is well-known as the primary risk factor for cervical cancer, but it’s important to realize that HPV poses a cancer risk to everyone, continues Hughes-Brown. Studies show that HPV is linked to more than just cancers of the female sex organs (cervical, vulvar, vaginal); it’s also a prevalent risk factor in anal, penile, and head and neck cancers (primarily of the throat), adds Ferris. When Gardasil was first introduced, there was a significant reduction in head and neck cancers.
4. The HPV vaccine has severe side effects, such as infertility.
“Like most vaccines, there can be mild side effects following vaccination, including soreness at the injection site, headache, fatigue, and nausea,” explains Ferris. One of the most common concerns is syncope, or fainting. The CDC reports that fainting can happen after any vaccination – more commonly in adolescents – likely due to pain and anxiety over the shot. This is why many providers monitor patients for around 10-15 minutes after vaccination.
Additionally, no research concludes the HPV vaccine causes infertility. However, when the cervix is left vulnerable to the HPV virus, some women must undergo a small, surgical excision known as a LEEP (loop electrosurgical excision procedure) to remove abnormal cells, explains Hughes-Brown. This can not only delay childbearing but can increase the risk of miscarriage. This makes Gardasil more protective for future pregnancies.
5. You don’t need the HPV vaccine if you get regular Pap tests.
Pap tests and the vaccine are not interchangeable or dependent on one another, notes Hughes-Brown. “The purpose of a Pap is to screen and detect cancerous cells. The vaccine works to prevent cancerous changes from happening in the first place; however, it doesn’t cover you 100%. So, both are incredibly important.”
6. The HPV vaccine doesn’t last long-term.
Regarding research so far, the vaccine is believed to be long-lasting (i.e., boosters aren’t needed following the two- or three-dose regimen). Nothing points to it “wearing off,” explains Ferris. “However, research is still ongoing, and we know vaccination requirements can change. The best thing you can do is stay on top of your screening and follow-up with your women’s health provider if you feel something is ‘off.’”