The HPV Vaccine: Recommended for Both Boys and Girls

a needle going into a vial of a vaccine

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced it is recommending boys also get the HPV vaccine. Previously, the CDC recommended only girls get the vaccine.

What is HPV?

Genital human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States. There are over 100 types of HPV, with more than 40 able to affect the genital area ( Nearly 20 million people in the United States are infected, and about 6.2 million more become infected each year with more than 50 percent of sexually active men and women infected with HPV at some time in their lives.

HPV infections do not cause any symptoms, and go away on their own. However, HPV can cause cervical cancer in women. The National Cancer Institute estimates that in 2011 alone, 12,710 new cases of cervical cancer will be diagnosed with 4,290 deaths from the disease.  It is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among women around the world.

HPV can cause genital warts and warts in the oral and upper respiratory tract in both men and women. HPV is also associated with several less common types of cancer in both men and women. There is no treatment for an HPV infection, but many of the conditions it causes can be treated.

Why get the HPV vaccine?

There are 2 FDA approved HPV vaccines on the market; Gardasil and Cervarix. The HPV vaccine Gardasil, protects against four major types of HPV; HPV 16 and 18, the two types that cause about 70 percent of cervical cancer and HPV 6 and 11 which cause 90 percent of genital warts. Cervarix is protective against HPV 16 and 18.

Protection from the HPV vaccine is expected to be long lasting, but vaccinated women still need cervical cancer screening (such as Pap tests and HPV tests) because the vaccine does not protect against all HPV types that can cause cervical cancer.

Who should get the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine is approved for girls and boys ages 9-26.  Only Gardasil has been approved for use in males.

The CDC recommends that all girls aged 11 to 12 years old receive vaccination with either brand of HPV vaccine to protect against cervical cancer. (CDC) They also recommend that girls and young women ages 13 through 26 get the HPV vaccine if they have not received any or all doses when they were younger.

The CDC recommends Gardasil vaccine for all boys aged 11 or 12 years, and for males aged 13 through 21 years, who did not receive any or all of the recommended doses when they were younger. It is recommended that all men receive the vaccine through age 26. (CDC)

The vaccine is given in a three-dose series with the second dose given two months after the first dose and the third given six months after the first dose.

Why is the HPV vaccine given at this age?

It is important for girls and boys to receive the HPV vaccine before their first sexual contact — when they have not been exposed to HPV. For these girls and boys, the vaccine can prevent almost 100 percent of diseases caused by the four types of HPV targeted by the vaccine. However, if a girl or boy is already infected with a type of HPV, the vaccine does not prevent disease from that type of the virus and will not cure a current HPV infection.

Catch–up HPV vaccinations

The vaccine is also recommended for those between the ages of 13 and 26 who did not receive it when they were younger. No booster doses are recommended at this time. The HPV vaccine may be given at the same time as other vaccines.

Who should not get the HPV vaccine?

Anyone who has ever had a life-threatening allergic reaction to yeast, latex, to any other component of the HPV vaccine, or to a previous dose of the HPV vaccine should not get the vaccine. People with severe allergies should tell their doctor before receiving the vaccine.

Pregnant women should not get the vaccine. The vaccine appears to be safe for both the mother and the unborn baby, but it is still being studied. Receiving the HPV vaccine when pregnant is not a reason to consider terminating the pregnancy. Women who are breastfeeding may safely get the vaccine.

People who are mildly ill when the shot is scheduled can still get the HPV vaccine. People with moderate or severe illnesses should wait until they recover

What are the risks of the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine does not appear to cause any serious side effects. However, vaccines, like any medication, may cause problems such as severe allergic reactions. The risk of any vaccine causing serious harm, or death, is extremely small. If side effects do occur, they happen within a few minutes to a few hours after the vaccination.

Mild problems that may occur with the HPV vaccine:

  • Pain at the injection site (eight of 10 people)
  • Redness or swelling at the injection site (one in four people)
  • Mild fever (100 degrees F) (one person in 10)
  • Itching at the injection site (one person in 30)
  • Moderate fever (102 degrees F) (one person in 65)
  • These symptoms do not last long and go away on their own.

These are just some of the side effects that may occur. It's best to speak with your physician about side effects from the HPV vaccine.

What to do for severe reaction to the HPV vaccine

Any unusual condition, such as a high fever or behavior changes could indicate a severe reaction. Signs of a serious allergic reaction can include difficulty breathing, hoarseness or wheezing, hives, paleness, weakness, a fast heartbeat or dizziness.

If you believe you or your child is having a severe reaction to the HPV vaccine, call a doctor or get the person to a doctor right away. Tell your doctor what happened, the date and time it happened and when the vaccination was given.

Ask your doctor, nurse, or health department to report the reaction by filing a Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) form or you can file this report through the VAERS website or by calling 800-822-7967.

Learn more about the HPV vaccine

Ask your doctor or nurse. They can show you the vaccine package insert or suggest other sources of information.

Call your local or state health department. Call 800-232-4636 (800-CDC-INFO).

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The Focus on Cancer blog discusses a variety of cancer-related topics, including treatment advances, research efforts and clinical trials, nutrition, support groups, survivorship and patient stories.

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