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 from the body on its own. If it persists, it can lead to cervical, anal, and throat cancers and to genital warts.
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.
Insurance coverage for Gardasil 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.
More recently, Gardasil 9 was approved by the FDA. It prevents infection by the same HPV types as Gardasil plus HPV-31, HPV-33, HPV-45, HPV-52, and HPV-58. Collectively, these types are implicated in 90% of cervical cancers.
Who Should Get Gardasil?
Ideally, the vaccine should be given to girls and boys 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 vaccine can be given up to age 26.
The recommendations note that girls as young as 9 can get the vaccine, and up to age 26 if they didn't get it when they were younger. The vaccine is also being studied in older women.
Gardasil and Gardasil 9 are also indicated for boys and men ages 9-26; it protects against two types of HPV that cause 90% of genital warts.
Gardasil has also been approved for the prevention of anal cancer.
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. Beginning at age 21 until age 65, women should have a pap test every 3 years. Once age 30, the option of doing a pap and HPV testing or HPV testing alone every 5 years also is available.