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The HPV Vaccine: Health 101

The HPV vaccine, called Gardasil, protects girls and women against HPV (human papillomavirus), the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. Experts estimate that more than 50 percent of sexually active people will get HPV at some point in their lives. HPV is easily passed from person to person through genital contact (and can even be transmitted while using condoms).

There are more than 100 strains of HPV, though most cause no symptoms and go away on their own as the immune system fights them off. But some HPV strains may linger and cause genital warts or changes to cells in the cervix that can lead to cervical cancer over time. The majority of cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV infection.

The HPV vaccine protects against four strains of HPV: Two that cause genital warts, and two that cause about 70 percent of all cervical cancer cases.

The vaccine is recommended for all girls ages 11-12, but can be given to girls as young as 9. The vaccine is also recommended for girls and women 13-26 who did not receive the vaccine earlier.

The vaccine is given in a series of three shots over a six-month period. The second shot should be given two months after the first dose and the third shot should be given six months after the first. It is safe for the HPV vaccine to be given at the same time as other vaccines.

"The recommended HPV vaccine schedule was purposefully designed to vaccinate young girls before they start having sex, says Neal Halsey, MD, director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Maryland and a member of the Parents magazine board of advisors. That's because the vaccine is most effective in girls who have not yet acquired any of the four HPV strains the vaccine protects against. HPV is so common that once your daughter becomes sexually active, her risk of contracting it increases immediately. There's no evidence that the vaccine fights off HPV strains your daughter may have been exposed to already, but it will protect her against the strains she hasn't.

First, this vaccine is designed for girls and women only. Researchers are currently studying whether the vaccine might help prevent HPV infection in boys and men. If this vaccine is effective in men it could protect them from having genital warts and rare cancers as well as help curb the spread of the virus to women.

This vaccine isn't recommended for all girls and women. People who fall into the following categories should not receive it or wait to receive it:

  • Anyone who's had a serious allergic reaction to yeast (there's a small amount in this vaccine) or a previous dose of the HPV vaccine
  • Anyone who are moderately or severely ill (more than just a cold, for example) should wait to get vaccinated
  • Anyone with bleeding or blood-clotting disorders like hemophilia

Talk to your doctor if you're concerned about whether or not the HPV vaccine is safe for your child.

In studies of more than 11,000 women (ages 9-26), no serious side effects from the HPV vaccine were found. Mild side effects include fever and soreness near the injection site.

As with any vaccine, severe allergic reactions are very rare, but possible. If you notice your child having difficulty breathing, hoarseness or wheezing, hives, paleness, weakness, dizziness, or a rapid heartbeat shortly after receiving a shot, call your doctor right away.

Because HPV is so common and can lead to cancer, most doctors think getting this vaccine is very important for young girls. "HPV causes thousands of women to suffer and die from cervical cancer each year," says Paul Offit, MD, Chief of Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania and a member of American Baby magazine's advisory board. "Getting vaccinated before your daughter is sexually active can reduce her risk of getting cervical cancer by 70 percent."

Some parents may feel uncomfortable having their daughters vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease -- especially at such a young age -- because it may spark a discussion about sex that they're just not quite prepared to have. Others may worry that being vaccinated will cause a tween or teen to become sexually active earlier or to engage in riskier behavior once she is having sex. "But research shows that girls decide whether or not to start having sex based on things like personal or family values -- not whether or not they've had a vaccine," says Dr. Halsey. "There's no evidence that getting the HPV vaccine will change your daughter's behavior." And if you and your child aren't ready for a formal safe-sex chat yet, you can just tell her that the vaccine helps prevent cancer, and leave it at that, says Dr. Halsey.

It's important to remember that the HPV vaccine only protects against four strains of the virus, so even girls and women who are vaccinated can get other types, including those that cause cervical cancer. So when the time comes, it's important to talk to your daughter about safe sex. All sexually active girls and women -- vaccinated or not -- should receive regular Pap smears (a screening test that can detect irregular cells before they become precancerous or cancers).

Sources: Neal Halsey, MD, director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Maryland and a member of the Parents magazine board of advisors. Paul Offit, MD, Chief of Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania and a member of the American Baby magazine advisory board member. Michael T. Brady, MD, the Vice Chair of the AAP's Committee on Infectious Diseases. Robert W. Sears, MD, author of The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child. CDC sections on HPV, HPV Vaccination, and Cervical Cancer. Children's Hospital of Boston's Center for Young Women's Health section on the HPV Vaccine. Mayo Clinic section on HPV Vaccination.



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