View all posts

The Vaccine That Can Prevent Cervical Cancer

Updated 10-02-20

Human papilloma virus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the US. “It is endemic,” said Christina Chu, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center. “Seventy to 80 percent of people have been exposed to it.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that about 79 million Americans are infected with HPV, and 14 million more will be infected annually. There are more than 100 different HPV types, 40 of which are easily spread through sexual contact with HPV-infected skin and mucus membranes. While HPV infection is often asymptomatic and disappears over time, there are certain high-risk HPV types that can persist and lead to cancer.

Almost all cervical cancer is caused by HPV. HPV can also cause cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and throat (oropharyngeal area). The CDC says that 21,000 women and 14,800 men in the US are affected by cancers caused by HPV every year. The good news is that vaccination can protect against the most common HPV infections that cause genital warts and cancer. “The vaccination is our best defense in stopping HPV infection in our youth and preventing HPV-related cancers in the first place,” said Richard I. Fisher, MD, president and CEO at Fox Chase Cancer Center. 

HPV vaccination has the potential to prevent 98 percent of all cervical cancers and greatly decrease the number of vulvar, vaginal, penile, anal, and oropharyngeal cancers.

The American Cancer Society and CDC recommend that girls and boys who are 11 or 12 years old get the HPV vaccination. Vaccinating children at this age results in a stronger immune response than it does in teenagers, and helps ensure that young people are vaccinated before they become sexually active. The HPV vaccine is now one of the routine childhood vaccinations given in the US. Only two doses, 6 to 12 months apart, are needed for children up to their 15th birthday; adolescents and young adults older than 15 years need the three-dose series.  

HPV Vaccine Recommendations From the CDC

  • HPV vaccine is recommended for boys and girls at 11 or 12 years. Vaccination can be started at age 9.
  • The HPV vaccination was initially recommended for:
    • women through age 26
    • men through age 21 years
    • men through age 26 years for men who have sex with men, men who identify as gay, bisexual, or transgender, and immunocompromised persons.

However, based on the results of a large study showing the effectiveness of the vaccine in an older age group, the FDA has recently expanded their approval of the Gardasil 9 HPV vaccination for all individuals through age 45.

“In this study of 3,200 women, ages 27-45, the vaccine was found 88 percent effective at preventing persistent HPV infection, genital warts, vulvar/vaginal/cervical precancerous lesions, and cervical cancer related to the 9 strains of HPV included in the vaccine,” Chu said.

“It is important to note, that the HPV vaccination is designed to prevent HPV infection, not to treat current infection, which is why there is emphasis placed on getting vaccinated before becoming sexually active,” she said.

But, Chu said this new data and approval show that even if an individual has been exposed to one strain of HPV in the past, he or she may benefit from the protection offered from the other strains included in the vaccine.

Adhering to the cervical cancer screening guidelines helps detect precancerous and cancerous lesions, and enables treatment to start as early as possible. Women who have been vaccinated for HPV should still get recommended cervical cancer screening.

“I urge parents to vaccinate their boys and girls, ages 11-13, with the HPV vaccine,” Fisher said. There are plenty of cancers we cannot prevent – but we have the tools to prevent HPV related cancers.”