Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) Infections & The HPV Vaccines
What is HPV?
The Human Papilloma virus (HPV) family consists of a group of viruses responsible for genital, skin and oral infections. They are particularly notorious for their compulsory involvement in changes leading to genital warts and cervical cancer. HPV does not affect women alone; boys and men can be affected.
HPV is commonly acquired from sexual intercourse (heterosexual or men who have sex with men), genital contact or oral to genital contact. It can also be transmitted from mother to child during labour and delivery.
Complications from HPV infections include vulva, vaginal, cervical, mouth, throat and anal cancers. Breathing problems from swellings in the throat and very large warts may also occur. It is believed that, apart from change in sexual behaviour and screening for cancer, primary prevention by vaccinations will reduce the effect of HPV infection and genital growths/cancer.
What is HPV vaccine?
The HPV vaccine is an injection that enables your body fight HPV when you are exposed. It does not clear already established infection or slow down the occurrence of complications if one is already infected.
There are 2 different types of vaccines available presently. Cervarix® offers protection against two HPV types 16 & 18 while Gardasil® offers protection against four HPV types 6, 11, 16&18. The additional protection helps prevention of genital warts. These virus types are most frequently involved in genital tumours and cancers.
The best protection is obtained in young girls or boys who receive the vaccination before sexual contact; routine immunization can be commenced from 9-12years. In several countries, routine immunization starts from 11-12years.
Females from 13-26 years and males from 13-21years may be vaccinated if they have not received it before while males from 22-26years can also receive the vaccine. In addition, patients with HIV or men who have sex with men can have the vaccine up to 26 years if they have not received it before.
The HPV vaccine is given thrice. The first dose is followed by a repeat 1-2months later, and the third dose is given 6months after the first dose. Each dose is 0.5mls of vaccine given by an injection-usually in the arm.
What happens if I miss a dose?
If you have received the first dose, then take the second one. Then, you should ensure that the interval between the second and third dose is not more than 3months.
How long do I have protection for?
Research has found up to 100% protection over 8-10 years. Complete protection is lower if taken after onset of sexual intercourse.
What are the possible complications?
With the HPV vaccine, complications are quite uncommon. However, cases of dizziness, fainting and pain at the site of injection have been reported. The HPV vaccine has not been directly linked to death in any individual since commencement of its use.
If I receive the vaccine, do I still need to have Pap smears?
Yes! If the vaccine is given to a female before commencing sexual intercourse, it is advised she should still resume Pap smear testing from 21 years of age. Older females who are sexually active may opt to receive the vaccine. However, there is no protection from HPV infection that already exists. Remember that not all viruses are covered by the vaccine.