HPV (human papillomavirus) infections are incredibly common. It is estimated that 75% of sexually active individuals in Canada will become infected in their lifetime. Recently vaccines for certain HPV strains have become available, and it’s causing a bit of a controversy despite being recommended by major health organizations like the WHO, Health Canada, and the Canadian Dermatology Association.
What is HPV, and why is it concerning?
HPV is the DNA virus that is responsible for causing warts. There are over a hundred strains of the virus identified, but most of the strains are not considered to be especially harmful and are often suppressed by the immune system. The virus itself is extremely prevalent, however. The most concerning are the strains that cause anogenital warts, and HPV is the most common STI (sexually transmitted infection) worldwide. Genital warts are concerning due to their unsightly appearance, and the virus can be sexually transmitted to a partner. Genital warts often recur, even after treatment as the virus itself cannot be removed. From a medical standpoint, the more pressing concern, however, are the strains that cause various cancers like anal, vaginal, vulvar, and mouth cancer–HPV 16 and HPV 18.
Is it really true that 75% of people have had HPV at some point? I had a few partners in my life, and none of them had genital warts.
Being a carrier of HPV is different from showing symptoms in the form of genital (or other) warts. The immune system can suppress the HPV virus for most people. Many people carry the virus asymptomatically, but they are still able to transmit the virus to their partner or partners, often unknowingly. While many people with HPV will not show symptoms or may have mild symptoms, there is no guarantee that this will be the case for you or your partner.
If HPV is really so prevalent, do I have to worry about it?
HPV is not just a concern about social stigma and genital warts. An HPV infection is a primary cause for many cancers which can be fatal. The risk is especially high for women.
What HPV vaccines are available?
Two HPV vaccines are approved in Canada: Gardasil, and Cervarix. Gardasil is indicated for women aged 9-26, and Cervarix is indicated for women aged 10-25. Both vaccines protect from the high-risk strains HPV16 and HPV18. The brand names and the specific vaccinations will vary from country to country.
Why is vaccination important?
Vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways of controlling infection. It not only helps prevent HPV infections, but it also helps protect everyone in the community better via herd immunity, meaning that beyond the effect of the vaccination, it helps the community be better protected via fewer people having the infection to transfer the virus. It’s hoped that a future generation that has a high vaccination rate will drop the prevalence of HPV significantly.
How effective are HPV vaccinations and do experts think it’s a good idea?
Both Gardasil and Cervarix are effective at providing protection from HPV16 and HPV18 for 8 years or longer, and current research suggests that a booster vaccine is not needed. Up to 70% of cervical cancers that would otherwise occur due to HPV is thought to be prevented by these vaccines, and its use is recommended by the World Health Organization, Health Canada, and the Canadian Dermatology Association.
What about concerns with vaccinations possibly causing autism?
There is no evidence that autism is in any way related to vaccinations. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has categorically denied any connection, and almost every major health organization in the world is agreed on this. Vaccinations will have some very minor risk, mostly due to allergy type reactions in a very small number of people, but it is heavily outweighed by the benefits of vaccination.
Why are HPV vaccinations recommended to pre-teenagers who aren’t sexually active?
The HPV vaccine provides a higher immunity in pre-teens, compared to older age groups. As vaccinations do not treat existing infections, but prevent future infection, vaccination before sexual activity is recommended.
Do I have to pay for these vaccines? Is it covered?
This depends on where you are living and can vary from province to province in Canada, or from state to state in the United States, as well as the particular insurance plan that you are under.