Since HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccines became available in Canada (there are now 3 of them), young women, teenagers, and their mothers have been asking many questions about the vaccine. Here are 10 things you need to know about HPV vaccination.
- HPV vaccination and safety. To date, Health Canada and the World Health Organization (WHO) have expressed no concerns regarding the safety of the HPV vaccines. Studies showed no serious side effects caused by the vaccines, with the most common side effect being soreness at the site of injection. HPV vaccines do not contain any thimerosal, a preservative sometimes used in vaccines.
- HPV vaccination is effective. There are 3 HPV vaccines available in Canada. One of them (HPV4) has been shown to be effective at preventing HPV infection caused by HPV types 6, 11, 16, and 18. Another (HPV2) has been shown to be effective at preventing HPV infection caused by HPV types 16 and 18. The last one (HPV9) has been shown to be effective at preventing HPV infection from 9 different types, including HPV types 6, 11, 16 and 18. When the body gets infected with a virus, it produces substances called antibodies, which help the body fight off an infection the next time the virus appears. Vaccines work by causing the body to produce antibodies so that when the virus appears, the body can fight off the infection. HPV vaccination has been shown to cause the body to make more antibodies than the body naturally would on its own during an HPV infection. (Note that HPV vaccination does not cause HPV infection.) If you have already been infected with one type of HPV, the vaccines will still protect you against some other types of HPV.
- HPV vaccination helps protect against certain types of HPV. All 3 vaccines protect against infection with HPV types 16 and 18, which are considered high-risk types of HPV. Two of the vaccines (HPV4 and HPV9) also protect against infection with HPV types 6 and 11. HPV types 16 and 18 cause approximately 70% of cervical cancers, and HPV types 6 and 11 cause approximately 90% of genital warts. Other diseases associated with these HPV types include vulvar, vaginal, and anal cancer. HPV vaccination doesn't protect against all types of HPV – only the types specified for each vaccine. HPV vaccination doesn't have an influence on an existing HPV infection, nor will it protect against types that you may have been exposed to before receiving the vaccine.
- HPV vaccination does not cure an HPV infection. There is currently no treatment available to cure HPV infection. Given this fact, it is important to get vaccinated against the most common types of HPV.
- If you are not yet sexually active, you should get vaccinated. HPV vaccination is recommended for all individuals at least 9 years of age. The HPV4 and HPV9 vaccines are approved in females aged 9-45 and males aged 9-26. The HPV2 vaccine is also approved in females aged 9-45 but is not approved in males. Research shows that the vaccine is thought to be most effective and provides the greatest protection against HPV infection when given before the individual becomes sexually active.
- If you are sexually active, you can still benefit from HPV vaccination. Although HPV vaccination is most effective when given before a female becomes sexually active, females who are sexually active can still benefit from being vaccinated, since most females will not have been exposed to all types of HPV that the vaccines protect against.
- Women need regular Pap tests even after receiving HPV vaccination. The HPV vaccines protect against the most common types of HPV that cause cervical cancer and genital warts, but not against all types of HPV. However, you can still become infected with one of the less common types of HPV not covered by the vaccines. Therefore, you should continue to have regular Pap tests to screen for cervical cancer. Starting at the age of 21, you should start getting a Pap test (also known as a Pap smear) once every 3 years.
- Three vaccine shots are needed for maximum protection. An HPV vaccine is usually given 3 times to ensure maximum protection. After you first receive the shot, the second shot is given either 1 month or 2 months after the first shot (depending on which vaccine you are receiving). The third shot is given 6 months after the first shot. If this schedule can't be followed, talk to your doctor about a possible alternative schedule. In some age groups, you may receive 2 doses instead. The vaccine is injected into a muscle, usually in the upper arm (deltoid region) or the upper outside part of the thigh.
- Insurance may cover HPV vaccination for some females. Most provinces or territories cover the cost of HPV vaccination for females of a certain age as part of a publicly funded immunization program. Check with your local public health department for more information. Many private insurance plans may also pay for HPV vaccination – check with your employer's plan administrator.
- HPV vaccination does not protect against other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). HPV vaccines will only protect against the HPV types covered by the vaccine. It will not provide protection against other STIs such as HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), chlamydia, or gonorrhea. Therefore, it's very important that you continue to use a barrier form of birth control, such as condoms, even after you have been vaccinated against HPV.
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