HPV vaccines protect against a very common sexually transmitted virus called HPV or human papillomavirus. HPV infects at least 50% of sexually active people at some point in their lives. The virus often clears on its own. If it persists, it can lead to cervical, anal, and throat cancers and to genital warts.
One HPV vaccine, Gardasil, was licensed for use by the FDA in 2006. It is recommended as a routine vaccination for females aged 9-26 years old and for boys and men aged 11 to 21. It is a three-dose series.
Another HPV vaccine, Cervarix, was licensed in 2009 for use in females aged 10-25.
Like all vaccines, these HPV vaccines are not foolproof. They do not protect against all of the 100-plus types of HPV. But both vaccines are nearly 100% effective in preventing disease caused by high-risk strains of HPV -- HPV 16 and 18 -- which together account for 70% of all cervical cancers, as well as many cancers of the vagina and vulva.
Gardasil, the First HPV Vaccine
Gardasil, the HPV vaccine made by Merck & Co., was licensed for use in June 2006. It targets four types of HPV: 6, 11, 16 and 18. Types 16 and 18 lead to cervical cancer. HPV 6 and HPV 11 cause about 90% of genital warts.
The vaccine contains a virus-like particle but not the actual virus. Three doses are given over six months to females aged 9-26.
Gardasil costs $120 per dose. Insurance coverage is common within the recommended age ranges. The federal Vaccines for Children Program covers the vaccine for those under age 19 who qualify. No serious HPV vaccine side effects have been found, although fainting spells following injection have been reported in teens and young adults. Sometimes soreness occurs at the injection site. It should not be administered to pregnant women.
Who Should Get Gardasil?
The vaccine should be given to girls at ages 11 to 12, according to recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC. The vaccine is best given at a young age, before sexual activity begins and before exposure to HPV.
The recommendations note that girls as young as 9 can get the vaccine, and females up to age 26 who didn't get it when they were younger. The vaccine is also being studied in older women.
Gardasil is also indicated for boys and men ages 9-26; it protects against two types of HPV that cause 90% of genital warts.
In late 2010, Gardasil was also approved for the prevention of anal cancer.
Another HPV vaccine, Cervarix, protects against types 16 and 18, which cause 70% of cervical cancers.
Three doses are given over six months to females 10-25 years old. Fainting spells have been reported in teens and young adults after vaccination.
Vaccines Are Not an HPV Cure
The vaccines are not an HPV cure. But both HPV vaccines have been shown to provide protection for five years.
HPV vaccination doesn't mean women can skip their Pap tests. Neither vaccine protects against all the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer.
SOURCES: News release. FDA. Diane Harper, MD, MPH, professor of community and family medicine and obstetrics and gynecology, Dartmouth Medical School, Hanover, N.H. Joseph Bocchini, MD, chairman, committee on infectious diseases, American Academy of Pediatrics; chief of pediatric infectious diseases, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, Shreveport, La. American Cancer Society: "Frequently Asked Questions About Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) Vaccines." FDA: "HPV (human papillomovirus)." American Social Health Association: "HPV (Human Papillomavirus) Fast Facts," and "HPV (Human Papillomavirus) Background Information." American Cancer Society: "Frequently Asked Questions About Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) Vaccines." WebMD Health News: "Cervical Cancer Vaccine Benefit Lasts." WebMD Feature: "HPV, Cervical Cancer Vaccine: 15 Facts." Liad Diamond, GlaxoSmithKline spokesperson.