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HPV Vaccines and Adults: Expert Q&A

HPV vaccination is not just for tweens and teens.
By Scott Harris
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

It’s never easy to talk to your doctor about sexually transmitted diseases. But doctors say females as young as 9 and as old as 26 should be vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV).

The goal is to get protected against HPV, which usually spreads through sexual contact and can cause certain types of cancer, before it’s too late. 

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," William Schaffner, MD, president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, tells WebMD in an interview. "Even though it can be a difficult thing to talk about."

There are two HPV vaccines: Gardasil and Cervarix. 

Gardasil targets four HPV types (6, 11, 16, and 18). It's indicated to help prevent cancer of the cervix, vagina, or vulva in females aged 9-26 and to help prevent genital warts and anal cancer in males and females aged 9-26. 

Cervarix guards against two HPV types (16 and 18). It's indicated to help prevent cervical cancer in females aged 10-25.

But if you're not a child or teen any more, will HPV vaccination do you any good?

Schaffner, who is also a professor in Vanderbilt University School of Medicine’s infectious diseases division and chair of the school’s department of preventive medicine, answered this and several other questions about HPV vaccination.

Who is eligible for the HPV vaccine?

"The HPV vaccine now mainly focuses on women up to 26 years of age," Schaffner says.

The HPV vaccine Gardasil is also approved for males aged 9-26 to help prevent genital warts, and for males and females aged 9-26 to help prevent anal cancer.

Is there any reason I shouldn’t get this vaccine?

"I like to say that if you’re up to 26 years of age and have a cervix, you should get this vaccine. It is strikingly effective, protecting against 70% of cervical cancers," Schaffner says.

Am I too old to get the HPV vaccine?

Neither HPV vaccine has an indication for women or men older than 26. It's not clear how effective it would be for people in that age range.

What are the risks of the HPV vaccine for adults?

"Risks appear to be modest," Schaffner says. "You can get sore arm, but lots of vaccines give you this."

How helpful (or not) is the HPV vaccine for sexually active adults?

"For women in longstanding relationships, HPV is not as big of a risk as it is for those who are serially monogamous or have more than one sexual partner," Schaffner says. "I think most ob-gyns and internists would recommend the vaccination."

How many doses will I need?

"It is a two-dose vaccine."

Reviewed on January 20, 2011

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