Communications: Patient Education

Patient Education: A Vaccine That Prevents Cancer - The HPV (Human Papillomavirus) Vaccine

Wednesday, June 26, 2013  
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Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus to which all people are exposed. The virus causes common warts, plantar warts, genital warts, and even cancer of the throat, cervix, vagina and penis. For decades, it has been recommended that women get regular Pap smears in order to find HPV and abnormal cervix cells early and intervene before cancer develops or spreads.

In one of the biggest medical breakthroughs of the modern era, a vaccine has been developed to prevent development of HPV-related cancers. Specifically, the HPV vaccines (brand names Gardasil and Cervarix) have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to prevent cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, and anus.  Gardasil is approved to prevent genital warts as well.  Research is ongoing, but there is evidence to suggest the vaccines also prevent cancer of the penis.Unfortunately, less than 1/3 of teens are currently up to date with this vaccination.

A new study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that rates of vaccine-type HPV prevalence dropped from 11.5 percent before the vaccine was introduced in 2006 to five percent by 2010 for 14 to 19 year-old-girls.

"The HPV vaccine works.  It has reduced disease rates in teen girls by 56-percent,” said Dr. Heather Hamernick, a family physician in New Prague, MN.  "That is why it is so important to make sure we are increasing vaccination rates in both girls and boys.”

The CDC recommends that all patients routinely receive the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12, which would traditionally be the ‘7th grade well child check-up’.  Dr. Hamernick said although most children are not sexually active yet at that age, the goal is to complete the vaccination series (3 shots over a period of 6 months) before a person is ever even exposed to genital HPV.  If patients do not get the vaccine at age 11 or 12, they can and should be given it by age 26.  For reference, Dr. Hamernick said that studies by the Minnesota Department of Health report that more than 20% of Minnesota teens have had sexual intercourse by the 9th grade, and more than 50% have had sexual intercourse by the 12th grade. The numbers would likely be even higher if they included students who have had oral sex or other activities that can spread HPV besides sexual intercourse.

"The HPV vaccines are very safe and effective,” said Dr. Hamernick.  "The vaccines have been studied in thousands of people in many countries including the United States.”  Potential side effects are the same as for any other vaccination: pain at the injection side, low-grade fevers, dizziness, fainting, and very rarely, an allergic reaction. The data so far show that the HPV vaccine prevents nearly 100% of cancers of the cervix, vagina and vulva, over 90% of genital warts, and over 75% of anal cancer. Neither vaccine brand contains mercury or thimerosal.

If someone has already become infected with one strain of genital HPV, the vaccine will not cure it, but rather will prevent future infection with other strains of HPV.  Current research suggests that the protective effects of HPV vaccine are long-lasting, and no booster immunizations should be needed after the initial series of three.

Of all the available vaccine-preventable diseases, HPV is by far the most common. It is much more common than polio, measles, tetanus and meningitis, which are other vaccine-preventable diseases.  According to the CDC, about 75% of people in the U.S. will contract a genital HPV infection during their lifetime, whether or not it causes symptoms.

"At least 20 million people in the country are currently infected with genital HPV,” said Dr. Hamernick.  "That’s why it should be a priority for all eligible patients to get the HPV vaccine because we know it saves lives.”

The Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians is a professional association of approximately 3,000 family physicians, family medicine residents and medical students organized to assist family physicians in providing quality medical care in Minnesota. The MAFP is the largest medical specialty organization in Minnesota and is a state chapter of the American Academy of Family Physicians, one of the largest national medical organizations in the United States with more than 103,000 members.


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