The human papillomavirus, or HPV is the collective name for a group of viruses, often transmitted through skin-to-skin sexual contact or intercourse. Of the many, many strains of HPV virus, around 30 of these can affect the genitals.
Some of these strains can cause health problems ranging from genital warts to specific cancers. Women are offered cervical smear tests regularly from the age of 25, to look for changes in the cervix which are related to HPV. Girls aged 12-13 are offered the HPV immunisation before they are sexually active to protect against the virus types that cause abnormal cells in the cervix. However, if you are not yet sexually active or if you are, but not in a permanent relationship, you may need to consider the HPV vaccine at any age.
Since the vaccines were first licensed in 2006, there have been several developments, the latest being the announcement that the NHS vaccination programme is being extended from April 2018 to cover men aged 45 or younger who have sex with other men.
With change there can be many concerns and misconceptions, so we address these and decode some of the most frequently asked questions to make sure you are fully aware of the facts.
If this is a vaccine against a virus, how does that help prevent cervical cancer?
It’s the HPV virus itself that can lead to changes in the cervix which may then become cancerous. So, preventing HPV infection in the first place, significantly reduces the chances of developing cervical cancer. You can read more about this here.
I’ve heard the HPV vaccine is designed for young women and virgins, is that why it’s given to girls as young as 12 even though they’re not sexually active?
The HPV vaccine is most effective when it is given to young girls before they become sexually active for a couple of reasons. Primarily because the ideal time to have the vaccination is before there has been any risk of exposure to HPV, so before becoming sexually active. Secondly, the immune system in younger girls responds better to the vaccine and therefore only needs two doses. In girls over the age of 15, three doses are recommended.
So, it’s basically a vaccine that promotes promiscuity?
No. The vaccination does not guarantee protection against HPV, nor does it protect against other common sexually transmitted infections, such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea. Therefore, even after having the course of vaccines, you should still practice safe sex. Even then, condoms still do not guarantee full protection against HPV. There are over 100 different types of HPV and, depending on the specific HPV vaccine administered, vaccination protects only against the most common HPV types which cause cervical cancer, but not all.
If it helps to prevent cervical cancer, why do men need it?
It is fairly well-known that HPV can cause cervical cancer in women, but in men, it can also cause other cancers, such as cancer of the anus, penis, mouth and throat. The HPV vaccine can also protect both men and women against some types of genital warts, which can be caused by HPV. Men do get some protection, indirectly, when women they are sexually active with are protected by the vaccine, but this is not the case with men who have sex with men. The NHS has now recognised this by introducing a national vaccination for men who have sex with other men and are aged 45 and under. Heterosexual men are not eligible for HPV vaccination through the NHS, however, can still be vaccinated through the LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor Service, available through this link.
I’ve heard the NHS only uses one particular type of HPV vaccine, so that must be the most trusted version?
The vaccine currently used as part of the National NHS HPV Vaccination Programme is called Gardasil, which protects against four types of HPV, two of which cause over 70% of cervical cancers in the UK, while the other two are responsible for causing 90% of genital warts. Of the other two HPV vaccines that are available, Cervarix protects against the same two types of cervical cancer-causing HPV types as Gardasil, but not against genital warts, while Gardasil 9 protects against a further five HPV types compared with Gardasil, with increased protection against up to 90% of cervical cancers. Gardasil 9 is available for both men and women through LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor. It can also be given to anyone who has already received a course of Gardasil but would like the greater protection offered by Gardasil 9.
I’m very careful to always use barrier contraceptives so why would I need to bother with this vaccine?
Barrier contraceptives will certainly help to some extent to protect against getting HPV but as the virus can be transferred by any skin contact, it does not provide complete protection.
Once I’m protected I’ll no longer need to go for a smear test, right?
The HPV vaccination will protect against 70-90% of cervical cancer causing HPV types, however, it cannot provide 100% protection. Therefore, it’s still very important to continue to attend regular appointments for smear tests.
I received a full course of the vaccine, when do I need a booster?
Research is still ongoing to see how long protection from the vaccine lasts but, at present, booster vaccines are not thought to be needed. If you have previously been vaccinated with either Cervarix or Gardasil and wish to receive the greater protection offered by Gardasil 9 you can get this further course of vaccines through LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor.
I missed having the vaccines when I was at school and am now sexually active. Is it too late to have it now I’m in my twenties?
The ideal time to be vaccinated is before becoming sexually active, but the vaccine will still protect against future exposure to HPV, if received later. It should be remembered that there is a small chance that previous exposure to HPV may already have caused changes to the cervix which could potentially lead to cervical cancer – receiving the vaccination after this will not affect those changes.
My immune system isn’t great and I’m worried it might actually give me HPV if my body can’t cope with the vaccine
It is impossible for the vaccine to give you HPV because it does not contain any live virus that can cause an infection. According to the product licenses for each of the HPV vaccines, anyone with an impaired immune system because they have human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), are using very strong immunosuppressant medication or have a genetic immune system defect, may not respond to the vaccine.