Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Doctor, Doctor, Give Me the News: The HPV Vaccine

Written by Maria Malzone

If you are like many girls, you have probably heard of the HPV vaccine—the first-ever vaccine to prevent cancer—which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in June of 2006. Perhaps your local news covered it, or perhaps your mother—or your friends’ mothers—voiced strong feelings for or against it. Lawmakers in your area might be trying to decide whether students should be vaccinated—and you, or someone you know, may have already received the vaccine. Whatever the case, you probably have questions. And we are here to answer them!

If you are like many girls, you have probably heard of the HPV vaccine —the first-ever vaccine to prevent cancer—which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in June of 2006. Perhaps your local {mosimage}news covered it, or perhaps your mother—or your friends’ mothers—voiced strong feelings for or against it. Lawmakers in your area might be trying to decide whether students should be vaccinated—and you, or someone you know, may have already received the vaccine. Whatever the case, you probably have questions. And we are here to answer them!

Q: What exactly is HPV?

A: HPV stands for the Human Papilloma Virus. Infection with HPV can lead to cancer of the cervix, the part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. Because over 4,000 women die of cervical cancer every year, preventing HPV infection will also prevent cervical cancer and save lives.

There are many strains, or types, of HPV, but only some of them lead to cervical cancer. In 2005, a drug company developed and tested the HPV vaccine , Gardasil® . This vaccine protects against two “high risk” strains that lead to 70% of all cervical cancers. It also prevents most genital warts .

{sidebar id=1}  Q : How is HPV spread and what are the symptoms?

A:HPV is spread by sexual skin-to-skin contact. Most often, an HPV infection won’t have any symptoms at all and goes away on its own. Sometimes HPV causes warts on or around the genitals. Warts are gnarly, but at least they’re easy to spot and treat.

In some cases, though, HPV causes the cells of the cervix to change. This symptom is much harder to see, and it can lead to cervical cancer if left untreated. Doctors recommend a Pap smear every six months if you are sexually active, to make sure your cervical cells look normal.

Q: I don’t plan on becoming sexually active anytime soon. Why get vaccinated now?

A: The U.S. Health and Human Services Department recommends that all 11-to 12-year-old girls get vaccinated. The HPV vaccine is most effective before someone has been infected with any strain of HPV, so it’s best to get it long before there is any chance of this happening.

Think about it: Kids used to catch chicken pox most often from their elementary or middle school classmates. But when a vaccine came out, it was given to babies—long before there was much chance of them being exposed to the disease!

Q: A vaccine that prevents cancer is a really good thing, right? So why are some people against vaccinating girls?

A: Because HPV infection is spread through sexual contact, some conservative groups think that making HPV less deadly will encourage young girls to have sex. Needless to say, doctors and health experts don’t agree!

Q: I’ve heard that the vaccine has nasty side effects. Is this true?

A: All vaccines have some side effects, and the HPV vaccine is no different. The most common side effects are pain where the shot was given and fever.

Q: Can the HPV virus harm boys and men? Why don’t they get the HPV vaccine too?

A: It’s rare, but HPV can cause cancer of the penis or throat in men. The HPV vaccine is now being tested on guys too.

Q: I didn’t get vaccinated for HPV, and I’m about to start college. Is it too late?

A: It’s not too late! The HPV vaccine is approved for women and girls ages 9-26. If you didn’t get vaccinated in your early teens, you can still do it in high school, after graduating, or when starting college. The vaccine is given in three separate shots over six months and costs about $360-400 total. It’s best to get vaccinated before becoming sexually active. While it can be expensive, and ouchy, remember that it also saves lives!


llustration by Jessica Lopez 

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