Human papilloma virus (HPV) is best-known for causing skin warts — which, though unsightly, are extremely common and generally benign. But HPV also causes 27,000 cases of cancer in the United States every year.
Most of the time, our bodies beat and destroy the HPV virus. But sometimes, it makes its way into our cells. That's when we start having to worry about warts and cancer: oral, cervical, and a variety of other kinds.
Luckily, the HPV vaccine is one of the newest immunizations to become available, and it helps our bodies fight off the hundreds of viruses that fall under the umbrella of HPV. Let's take a look at how, when, and to whom this potentially life-saving vaccine should be administered.
How It Works
Based on decades of research, the HPV vaccine is very cleverly devised. Unlike many traditional vaccines, such as the flu shot, the HPV vaccine contains no actual virus. Instead, it contains particles engineered to look like the virus's DNA. These particles introduce our bodies to what HPV's DNA looks like. After being vaccinated, your child's body will be prepared to fight HPV if and when it encounters the virus, killing off the infection before it can cause cancer.
Like many learned skills, this process of teaching the immune system to stand up against HPV best takes place early — ideally, between the ages of 11 and 12. At that age, your child will only need two injections of the HPV vaccine to be protected from cancer and warts caused by at least nine types of HPV. If they're vaccinated later, between 15 and 26 years old, your child will need three injections to receive all the benefits. Vaccination for boys and men is recommended through the age of 21; for women, it's recommended up to age 26.
Who Should Get It
Before the age of 26, most people have become sexually active and will be exposed to HPV. Whether it's with one partner or several, and whether it's with the same or the opposite gender, all people can benefit from protection from HPV-caused cancer. Men who have sex with men, as well as those who are HIV-infected or immunocompromised, are encouraged to vaccinate through age 26 if they haven't already been vaccinated or haven't received the full series of vaccinations. Almost all forms of cervical cancer have been linked to HPV, so with the vaccine, we stand a real chance of wiping out cervical cancer forever.
The HPV vaccine is among the best cancer prevention tools out there. Vaccinating your kids against HPV can save their lives, as well as reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to other people. The benefits include very long, if not lifelong, immunity to several cancers as well as genital warts. Talk to your health care provider about beginning the vaccine series when your child reaches age 11, or as soon as possible if she or he is already a teen or young adult.