Issues regarding the vaccine that prevents infection with the human papillomavirus (also called HPV) have been in the news lately- so I thought I’d do a thumbnail sketch on it this week. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. Most people with HPV don’t have symptoms or health problems from it- and 90% of the time the body’s immune system clears it naturally within a couple years. However, when it doesn’t go away, it can cause genital warts or several different types of cancers- including cervical cancer. In fact, almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV. We don’t know why HPV goes away in most (but not all) and there’s no way to know which people will go on to develop cancer or other health problems.
The good news is that we have a vaccine to prevent infections with HPV. A vaccine that prevents infection with HPV is available for both genders to protect against the types of HPV that most commonly cause health problems. The vaccine (either Gardasil or Cervarix) is currently recommended for females aged 9-26, and Gardasil can be given to males aged 9-26. Cervical cancer can also be prevented with routine Pap tests and follow-up of any abnormal results. Women who were vaccinated when they were younger still need regular screenings because the vaccines don’t protect against all types of HPV that cause cervical cancer. Prevention is always better than treatment.