HPV Vaccine (“Cervical Cancer Vaccine”)

Two vaccines are available to prevent the human papillomavirus (HPV) types that cause most cervical cancers. These vaccines are the bivalent vaccine (Cervarix) and the quadrivalent vaccine (Gardasil). Both vaccines are given in 3 injections over a 6-month period.

Why is the HPV vaccine important?

Genital HPV is a common virus that is passed from one person to another through direct skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity. Most sexually active people will get HPV at some time in their lives, though most will never even know it. Most HPV types cause no symptoms and go away on their own. But some types can cause cervical cancer in women and other less common cancers— such as cancers of the anus, penis, vagina, vulva and oropharynx (back of throat including base of tongue and tonsils). Other types of HPV can cause warts in the genital areas of men and women, known as genital warts.

Which girls/women should receive HPV vaccination?

HPV vaccination is recommended with either vaccine for 11 and 12 year-old girls. It is also recommended for girls and women age 13 through 26 years of age who have not yet been vaccinated or completed the vaccine series. HPV vaccine can also be given to girls beginning at age 9 years.

Will sexually active females benefit from the vaccine?

Ideally females should get the vaccine before they become sexually active and exposed to HPV. Females who are sexually active may benefit from vaccination, but less so. This is because they may have already been exposed to one or more of the HPV types targeted by the vaccines. However, few sexually active young women are infected with all HPV types prevented by the vaccines, so most young women could still get protection by getting vaccinated.

Can pregnant women get the vaccine?

The vaccines are not recommended for pregnant women. Studies show that HPV vaccines do not cause problems for babies born to women who were vaccinated while pregnant, but more research is still needed. A pregnant woman should not get any doses of either HPV vaccine until her pregnancy is completed.

Getting the HPV vaccine when pregnant is not a reason to consider ending a pregnancy. If a woman realizes that she got one or more shots of an HPV vaccine while pregnant, she should do two things:

  • Wait until after her pregnancy to finish the remaining HPV vaccine doses.
  • Contact her gynecologist or family doctor.

Should girls and women be screened for cervical cancer before getting vaccinated?

Girls and women do not need to get an HPV test or Pap smear to find out if they should get the vaccine. However it is important that women continue to be screened for cervical cancer, even after getting all 3 shots of either HPV vaccine. This is because neither vaccine protects against ALL types of cervical cancer.

How effective are the HPV Vaccines?

The vaccines target the HPV types that most commonly cause cervical cancer. One of the vaccines (Gardasil) also protects against the HPV types that cause most genital warts. Both vaccines are highly effective in preventing the targeted HPV types, as well as the most common health problems caused by them.

How long does vaccine protection last?

Research suggests that vaccine protection is long-lasting. Current studies have followed vaccinated individuals for six years, and show that there is no evidence of weakened protection over time.

What does the vaccine not protect against?

The vaccines do not protect against all HPV types— so they will not prevent all cases of cervical cancer. About 30% of cervical cancers will not be prevented by the vaccines, so it will be important for women to continue getting screened for cervical cancer (regular Pap smears). Also, the vaccines do not prevent other sexually transmitted infections, so it will still be important for sexually active persons to lower their risk for other STI’s.

Will girls and women be protected against HPV and related diseases, even if they don’t get all 3 doses?

It is not yet known how much protection girls and women get from receiving only one or two doses of an HPV vaccine. So it is very important that girls and women get all 3 doses.

How safe are the HPV vaccines?

Both vaccines were studied in thousands of people around the world, and these studies showed no serious safety concerns. Side effects reported in these studies were mild, including pain where the shot was given, fever, dizziness, and nausea. Vaccine safety continues to be monitored.

What about vaccinating boys and men?

Internationally, Gardasil was found to be safe and effective for males 9 -26 years. Currently Gardasil remains unregistered for use in boys and men in South Africa

Are there other ways to prevent cervical cancer?

Regular cervical cancer screening and follow-up can prevent most cases of cervical cancer. The Pap smear can detect cell changes in the cervix at an early, treatable stage before they turn into cancer. There are HPV tests that can tell if a woman has HPV on her cervix. These tests can be used with the Pap smear to help determine next steps in cervical cancer screening.

Are there other ways to prevent HPV?

For those who are sexually active, regular use of condoms may lower the chances of getting HPV, if used with every sexual act from start to finish. Condoms may also lower the risk of developing HPV-related diseases (genital warts and cervical cancer). But HPV can infect areas that are not covered by a condom—so condoms may not fully protect against HPV.

People can also lower their chances of getting HPV by being in a faithful relationship with one partner, limiting their number of sexual partners and choosing a partner who has had no or few prior sexual partners. However, even people with only one lifetime sexual partner can get HPV, and it may not be possible to determine if a partner who has been sexually active in the past is currently infected.