HPV vaccination: What is it and why is it important?

Aug 1, 2021


Each August, National Immunization Awareness Month highlights the importance of vaccinations. In the past year, the COVID-19 vaccine may have been the one with the most press coverage. But there are many other vaccines that are just as crucial for health and well-being, including the HPV vaccine.

“If I had a vaccine that could prevent cancer, would you get it?” Alexander Heard, MD, chief medical officer at Adventist Health Sonora poses the question. “Well, we do have a vaccine that can prevent cervical cancer.”

HPV vaccination is cancer prevention

Thanks to medical research, we now know that there is a clear, direct link between cervical cancer and human papillomavirus (HPV). At least 14 of the 100 types of HPV cause cancer. Two specific types of HPV account for about 70% of all cases of cervical cancer and precancerous lesions (growths).

The good news is that the HPV vaccine specifically protects against those two highest-risk cancer-causing HPV strains, as well as seven other strains.

“The safety, effectiveness and outcome data are all excellent for the HPV vaccine,” shares Dr. Heard. “In fact, we’re seeing that the HPV vaccine is about 90% effective at preventing HPV-attributable cancers.”

Understanding HPV

HPV is a viral infection—and it is the most common sexually transmitted infection. About 80% of all people who are sexually active contract HPV. In the United States, that’s about 79 million people.

But many people misunderstand what HPV is and how it spreads. HPV spreads through skin-to-skin contact from the mid-thigh all the way up to the upper abdomen. It’s a misconception that someone can only get HPV through penetrative intercourse.

It’s also a misconception that HPV vaccines are only appropriate for girls and women. HPV can lead to multiple cancers, including cervical, vaginal, vulvar, anal, penis and head and neck cancer. And men carry HPV. When the vaccine was originally released and given only to girls and women, there was not a significant decrease in HPV transmission. When providers began giving the vaccine to boys and men as well, the HPV incidence rate drastically declined.

Who should get the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine is most effective when given before exposure to the virus. That’s why healthcare professionals recommend that the vaccine be given to both girls and boys between the ages of 9 and 26.

Giving the HPV vaccine to your child is a proven tool to help protect them. “Of course, we want to protect our children from all situations, no matter what,” Dr. Heard notes. “But we also can’t make all choices for our children, including their choice of spouse. We also know that ages 18 to 25 are when most young adults engage in riskier behaviors. Given that context, don’t we want to give our children as much protection as we can?”

Before age 15, the HPV vaccine is a two-dose vaccine. After age 15, the vaccine is a three-part series. And while the vaccine is typically most effective in younger people, adults can still get it. “If you get the vaccine before you’re exposed to HPV, it will be protective, no matter your age,” explains Dr. Heard. “And if you already have HPV, the vaccine can protect you against other strains.”

Finding reliable information

As with all vaccines, the HPV vaccine went through rigorous testing before it was recommended for general public use. All vaccines go through clinical trials that evaluate the effectiveness, potential side effects and risks before the immunization is offered to your child. And as long as any vaccine is in use, any side effects continue to be reported.

When learning about vaccines, it’s important to seek out reliable sources of information. Organizations like the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics constantly evaluate and publish the most recent information regarding vaccines and public health.

If you still have questions, speak openly and honestly with your child’s pediatrician. Pediatricians are partners in advocating for your child’s health and well-being. It’s important to find a provider you trust.

If you are searching for a pediatrician or other healthcare provider, find an Adventist Health provider near you.