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What You Need to Know About the HPV Vaccine

Infographic with myths and facts about the HPV Vaccine

The human papillomavirus (HPV) causes nearly 34,000 cases of cancer in men and women in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To put that number in perspective, the population of Upper Arlington, Ohio is about 35,000. But there’s good news! The HPV vaccine can prevent most of them.

We wanted to know everything about it: how it works, who should get it and whether it’s safe. So we talked to physicians at OhioHealth Riverside Family Practice, who busted a few myths and explained why they’re so excited about the vaccine.

What is HPV?

HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases. It is a group of more than 150 viruses that can cause genital warts and cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus, head and neck. You can get HPV through intimate skin-to-skin contact, and may not see symptoms for many years, or ever. “HPV is incredibly prevalent,” says OhioHealth gynecologist oncologist Kellie Rath, MD. “More than 80 percent of people in the United States will be exposed to it at some point in their lifetime.”

Is the HPV vaccine effective?

The vaccine protects you against nine strains of the HPV virus, says OhioHealth gynecologist oncologist Aine Clements, MD. These nine strains are responsible for the majority of HPV-related cancers and conditions. And, even if you have already contracted one or more of the strains, it will still protect you against those you haven’t been exposed to yet.

Is the HPV vaccine safe?

Rath says the vaccine is very safe. “It’s been approved since 2006, so we have many years of good safety data.” And, there are minimal side effects. The most common reactions are muscle soreness, redness at the injection site and fainting, which are very normal responses to vaccines.

Who should get the HPV vaccine?

The vaccine is approved for men and women ages nine to 45. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids get the HPV vaccine at their 11-year-old check-up.

While HPV is well-known for causing cervical cancer in women, men are just as likely to carry the virus and be affected by it. And, there aren’t screening tests available for men like there are for women.

“Men can’t get cervical cancer, but they can get anal cancer, and head and neck cancer, which can be an exceptionally disfiguring diagnosis,” says OhioHealth family medicine physician Laurie Hommema, MD. “We don’t know if you’re going to be exposed to HPV in your life, but there is a good chance you will be. The vaccine is an insurance policy against cancer that protects not just you, but the people you love.”

Will the HPV vaccine encourage sexual activity?

“Data shows that vaccination has nothing to do with young people becoming sexually active,” says Rath. “We also know that the vaccine is more effective the younger we give it.”

Will the HPV vaccine affect fertility?

“There is no effect on fertility,” says Rath.

Is it safe to get the HPV vaccine more than once?

If you can’t remember whether you’ve had the HPV vaccine, or lose your health records, don’t worry! Hommema says getting the vaccine again “will certainly not hurt you, just maybe your wallet!”

Will I still need Pap tests after getting the HPV vaccine?

Rath says women should continue to see their gynecologist for routine Pap tests even after getting the vaccine. While the vaccine does protect you against most cancer-causing strands of the virus, it does not protect against all of them. A Pap test every three to five years is an important method of early detection.

How do I get the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine can be administered during a routine appointment with your primary care provider or gynecologist, or you can schedule an appointment specifically for the vaccine that usually takes 10 minutes or less. Patients under the age of 15 will need a second shot six to 12 months after the first one, and patients over the age of 15 need a series of three shots.

Why is getting the HPV vaccine so important?

All of our doctors had something to say about this one:

  • “This is a safe, effective vaccine that is a way for us to prevent infection as well as cancer.” – Dr. Rath
  • “This vaccine is a very powerful tool we can use to prevent a lot of suffering, not just for our kids, but for all of our loved ones. I really encourage people to look into it and consider getting it.” – Dr. Clements
  • “For years, we always hoped for a vaccine to prevent cancer, and now we have one. To prevent lifelong diseases and cancer, which can be so devastating for many individuals, is really exciting.” – Dr. Hommema

Don’t miss your shot to prevent HPV! Visit OhioHealth.com to find an OB-GYN or primary care provider near you who can administer the HPV vaccine.