HPV Vaccines: Protection Now, Protection for the Future

HPV Vaccines: Protection Now, Protection for the Future

Human papilloma viruses (HPV) are the most common sexually transmitted infections. HPV encompasses a group of more than 200 viruses—of which approximately a dozen can lead to certain types of cancer.

The good news is, an HPV vaccine is available to protect against infection. The key is to get the vaccine before one engages in any type of sexual activity.

“As a pediatrician and somebody who really cares about the health of our children—not just for today, but for the future—I believe the HPV vaccines are so important. They're actually one of the few vaccines we have available that can prevent cancer,” states Dr. Michelle Bowden, Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

The HPV Vaccine’s Role in Cancer Prevention

Most people are familiar with the HPV vaccine’s role in preventing cervical cancer. But, HPV actually causes many different types of cancer, including anogenital cancer and cancers of the head and neck. “By getting an HPV vaccination, you can prevent cancer in all of those places,” notes Dr. Bowden.

The HPV vaccine has historically been recommended at ages 11-12. However, it’s been approved for as young as age nine. Both girls and boys should receive the vaccine to provide the greatest protection—especially with the rising numbers of head and neck cancers occurring in men.

How Does the Vaccine Work?

Like many vaccines, the HPV vaccine works by exposing the body to parts of the virus. The body then responds with an antibody reaction that provides protection from future exposure. Dr. Bowden assures that it is not possible to contract one of the human papilloma viruses through the vaccine.

“Because a portion of the virus is being exposed to the body, the body can still mount a strong response that protects the person for the rest of their lives,” she explains.

The HPV vaccine is completely safe and effective. In fact, it has been one of the most studied vaccines prior to COVID-19. Side effects are very minimal and typically include a sore arm, redness or swelling at the injection site, fatigue, and a slight fever—although fever is very rare. Research has also shown that vaccination has no impact on fertility.

Dr. Bowden advises that women still continue with regular PAP tests. “The vaccine protects against about 90% of the cancer-causing strains of HPV, but for that last 10% we still recommend adults who are over age 21 to continue to have PAP tests.”

Recovering from the Pandemic’s Impact on Vaccination Numbers

One factor that has made Dr. Bowden so passionate about educating parents and patients about HPV vaccination in the last year-plus is that so many adolescents missed out on getting vaccinated due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Clinics were shut down. We were doing telehealth visits. People were afraid to go out and be exposed to the virus. We know we've lost a lot of opportunities to vaccinate kids, especially against HPV and other routine immunizations. We estimate there may have been as many as a million HPV vaccinations that could have been missed in the last 18 months, which feels like a scary number,” she shares. “Certainly, what we consider is that this missed opportunity directly impacts the rate of cervical cancer and head and neck cancer in the future.”

Now that clinics are back open and welcoming patients, Dr. Bowden hopes parents will resume their child’s well visits—including HPV vaccination. “As pediatricians, we’re committed to vaccinating our children, wherever they are in the series and at whatever they are age are now.”

**To listen to an in-depth conversation on this topic with Dr. Michelle Bowden, Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, please follow this link: https://radiomd.com/lebonheur/item/46002

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