Despite the numerous benefits, several misconceptions about the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines still persist. “It’s vitally important to know the facts about this cancer-prevention vaccine,” says Darlene Gibbon, MD, Medical Director of Gynecologic Oncology at Summit Health Cancer Center. The following are seven common myths about HPV vaccines.
Myth #1: HPV vaccines are not safe.
FACT: HPV vaccines are very safe and usually very well tolerated. Scientific research shows the benefits of HPV vaccination far outweigh the potential risks. Like all medical interventions, vaccines can have some side effects.
The most common side effects of HPV vaccines are usually mild, and include:
- Pain, redness, or swelling in the arm where the shot was given
- Headache or feeling tired
- Muscle or joint pain
- Syncope (fainting), which can occur after any medical procedure, including vaccination
Myth #2: HPV vaccines do not decrease the incidence of cervical cancer.
FACT: HPV causes nearly all cervical cancers. Cervical cancer is almost always caused by HPV infection that is spread through sexual contact. The HPV vaccine can protect people from the types of HPV infections that can cause cervical cancer, as well as cancers of the vagina, vulva, penis, anus, rectum, and oropharynx (head and neck).
A study using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides evidence that the HPV vaccine is effectively reducing the numbers of cervical dysplasia or precancers. Among women who had been vaccinated, the percentage of precancers caused by HPV 16 and 18 dropped from 55.2% to 33.3% (from 2008 to 2014). Additionally, according to the World Health Organization, widespread HPV vaccination has the potential to reduce cervical cancer incidence around the world by as much as 90 percent.
Myth #3: The HPV vaccine is only for teenage girls and women.
FACT: HPV has been approved for both men and women up to the age of 45 by the Food and Drug Administration as an effective way to prevent HPV infection and related cancers. It has been in use for cancer prevention in young people ages 9-26 and is now approved for men and women ages 27 to 45.
HPV vaccination can help prevent future infections that can lead to cancers of the penis, anus, and back of the throat in men.
As cited by the CDC, HPV is thought to be responsible for more than 90% of anal and cervical cancers, about 70% of vaginal and vulvar cancers, 60% of penile cancers and about 60 to 70% of cancers in the back of the throat (oropharynx).
Myth #4: HPV vaccines can cause infertility.
FACT: There is no evidence to suggest that getting an HPV vaccine will have an effect on future fertility. However, women who develop an HPV precancer or cancer could require treatment that may result in difficulty getting pregnant or cause pre-term labor.
Myth #5: Young children don’t need the HPV vaccination.
FACT: Protection against HPV is greatest when the vaccines are given between ages 9 and 14. Vaccines protect children before they are exposed to a disease, and younger children mount a better immune response than older children. That’s why the HPV vaccine is given earlier rather than later, to protect them long before they are ever exposed. Also, if you wait until the child is older, they may need three doses versus two doses before their 15th birthday.
Myth #6: A person with HIV doesn’t need HPV vaccination.
FACT: Vaccines are especially critical for people with chronic health conditions such as HIV infection. Persons with HIV are at increased risk of HPV infection, HPV disease, and HPV-related cancers compared to HIV negative persons. “People with HIV should be vaccinated because it will protect them from HPV infections,” advises Dr. Gibbon. The CDC recommends persons with HIV get vaccinated up to the age of 26.
Myth #7: Women who get the HPV vaccine don’t need to get Pap tests.
FACT: Even if a woman over the age of 21 gets the HPV vaccine, she still needs to get regular Pap smears to screen for cervical cancer. That’s because the HPV vaccines don’t protect against all the HPV types that can cause cancer. A woman may also have been infected with a cancer-causing strain of HPV before getting the vaccine, in which case it won’t protect her against that particular strain.
The only HPV vaccine available in the United States is Gardasil-9 which protects against nine HPV types including 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58. This vaccine, which is given at scheduled times, will protect against the development of genital warts and HPV-related cancers.
The most recent guidelines for Pap testing for women (without a history of abnormal Pap smear) are as follows:
- Pap testing should not begin before age 21. Women ages 21-29 should get a Pap test every three years. This involves looking at the appearance of the cells of the cervix under a microscope.
- Women ages 30-65 should have Pap test along with HPV test every five years.
- Women over 65 years of age do not need to be screened if they have gone for routine prior screenings and have not been diagnosed with precancerous cervical changes or cancers on prior screenings.
- If a woman has had a hysterectomy with removal of the cervix and does not have a history of precancerous changes of the cervix or cervical cancer, further testing is not necessary. If there is a medical history of HPV or cervical cancer, screening must continue for 20 additional years.
“There is clear evidence that getting the HPV vaccine will reduce the risk of cervical cancer, as well as other diseases caused by the virus,” says Dr. Gibbon. “In short, the HPV vaccine can save lives.”