Six Common HPV Vaccine Myths Debunked

By: Sarah Galzerano, Jefferson Health – New Jersey

The HPV vaccine has been administered for almost two decades, but controversy over the vaccine’s safety has resurfaced in recent years. To help quell concerns and debunk common myths fueled by misinformation, we spoke with women’s health specialists Maureen Hughes-Brown and Ashley Ferris.  

1. You can’t receive the HPV vaccine if you’ve already been infected.

If you already have HPV, the vaccine can still protect against various strains that you’re vulnerable to, says Ashley. There are more than 100 types of HPV; the vaccine covers nine of the most prominent strains, which are linked to nearly 90% of cervical cancers, as well as other complications, like genital warts, explains Maureen. 

How does the HPV vaccine work? It contains virus-like particles that will help you produce antibodies to fight off the HPV virus.

2. You can’t receive the HPV vaccine past age 12. 

Whether you’ve already been exposed or not, the vaccine can be given well after teenage years, continues Maureen. Naturally, if you’ve been sexually active, it might not be as preventative, but can still help substantially.  

While the CDC recommends two doses between ages 11-12 for the most effective prevention, you can get the vaccine from ages nine to 45, adds Ashley. If you’re 15 or older – or you’re immunocompromised – when you first receive the vaccine, three doses, instead of two, is recommended.

3. The HPV vaccine only protects girls. 

Anyone can contract and transmit HPV through sexual contact. Because it’s typically asymptomatic (meaning it doesn’t cause any symptoms) neither partner would know if they had HPV or were spreading it, says Maureen. If both consenting individuals are vaccinated, it only doubles the protection. 

HPV is well-known as the primary risk factor for cervical cancer, but it’s important to realize that HPV poses a cancer risk to everyone, continues Maureen. Studies show that HPV is linked to more than just cancers of the female sex organs (cervical, vulvarvaginal); it’s also a prevalent risk factor in anal, penile, and head and neck cancers (primarily of the throat), adds Ashley. When the HPV vaccine was first introduced, there was a significant reduction in head and neck cancers. 

4. The HPV vaccine has severe side effects, such as infertility. 

“Like most vaccines, there can be mild side effects following vaccination, including soreness at the injection site, headache, fatigue and nausea,” explains Ashley. One of the most common concerns is syncope, or fainting. The CDC reports that fainting can happen after any vaccination – more commonly in adolescents – likely due to pain and anxiety over the shot. This is why many providers monitor patients for around 10-15 minutes after vaccination. 

Additionally, no research concludes that the HPV vaccine causes infertility. However, when the cervix is left vulnerable to the HPV virus, some women must undergo a small, surgical excision known as a LEEP (loop electrosurgical excision procedure) to remove abnormal cells, explains Maureen. This can delay childbearing and increase the risk of miscarriage. This makes the HPV vaccine more protective for future pregnancies.

5. You don’t need the HPV vaccine if you get regular Pap smears. 

Pap smears (also known as Pap tests) and the vaccine are not interchangeable or dependent on one another, notes Maureen. “The purpose of a Pap is to screen and detect cancerous cells. The vaccine works to prevent cancerous changes from happening in the first place; however, it doesn’t cover you 100%. So, both are incredibly important.” 

6. The HPV vaccine doesn’t last long term. 

Regarding research so far, the vaccine is believed to be long-lasting (i.e., boosters aren’t needed following the two- or three-dose regimen). Nothing points to it “wearing off,” explains Ashley. “However, research is still ongoing, and we know vaccination requirements can change. The best thing you can do is stay on top of your screening and follow-up with your women’s health provider if you feel something is ‘off.’”  

If you or your child hasn’t received their HPV vaccine – or you think you may need your booster – you can talk to a pediatricianprimary care provider or OB/GYN.

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