Quick Facts: The HPV Vaccine and What It Means for You
Good news! A vaccine designed to protect against the two most common cancer-causing types of the HPV virus is available! The first such HPV vaccine, called Gardasil® (developed by Merck & Co., Inc.), was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in June 2006. Another, called Cervarix™ (made by GlaxoSmithKline, Inc.), is in developement. With the introduction of the first HPV vaccine, the dream of eliminating cervical cancer is increasingly within reach.
However, the vaccine isn’t for everyone, and a regular Pap and (if 30 and over) HPV test is still necessary even for those who are vaccinated. Read on for more information.
How does the vaccine work? What protection does it offer?
Gardasil protects against the two types of HPV that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers (types 16 and 18), as well as the two types that cause most genital warts (6 and 11). However, although there are reports that the vaccine may offer some protection against several of the other 11 or so types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer, those findings are not conclusive. In addition, the vaccine has not been proven to be effective against HPV infections that already exist due to previous sexual contact. Thus, the vaccine’s protection is incomplete and women still need to be screened periodically using a Pap and (once 30 or over) the HPV test.
Who should get the HPV vaccine?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of Merck’s vaccine, Gardasil, for girls and young women age 9-26. However, the vaccine has not been shown to be effective in protecting women who already have been exposed to the four targeted types of the virus (two that can cause cervical cancer and two that cause genital warts). Thus, it is best to get vaccinated before a woman’s first sexual relationship.
A note about men: Males get HPV too and can pass the virus to women. However, the FDA has not approved the use of Gardasil for boys or men. There are currently no data demonstrating that the vaccine can protect them from getting genital warts or developing HPV-related cancers (such as cancer of the penis, which is rare), or that it can prevent transmission of the virus to women.
How long does the vaccine’s protection last?
So far, studies show the protection offered by Gardasil lasts at least five years. It is unknown at this time whether additional, “booster” shots are needed later.
Does insurance cover the vaccine?
Many do, although coverage is usually limited to the approved age range of 9-26. If you pay out of your own pocket, the cost is typically $120 per dose ($360 for the series of three shots). Check with your insurance plan.
Can a person still get cervical cancer and genital warts after being vaccinated? Are Pap smears and HPV testing still needed after vaccination?
Yes to both questions! Even with a vaccine, women will still need a regular Pap and – if 30 or over – the HPV test. That's because:
- The protection offered by the vaccine is incomplete. There are roughly 15 types of the HPV virus that can cause cervical cancer. Gardasil is designed to protect against two types of the virus that are responsible for 70 percent of all cervical cancers. However, they cannot fully protect women against the remaining 30 percent of cervical cancers that are caused by other "high-risk" types of HPV.
- The vaccine cannot protect everyone. HPV is transmitted through intimate (sexual) skin-to-skin contact. Thus, to be fully effective, current research suggests that the vaccine should be given before girls become sexually active. In other words, the ideal time to get the vaccine is during adolescence.
- There are a lot of unknowns. For example, it is not known whether a "booster" vaccine shot will be needed later in life to ensure continued protection.
Thus, both vaccination and Pap and HPV testing are essential tools in the fight against cervical cancer.