A staggering 75-80% of us will have contracted a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection by age 50. Although HPV infections don't always result in long-term health problems, this sexually transmitted infection can lead to genital warts and many types of cancer.
In fact, almost 100% of cervical cancer cases are attributed to HPV, which also accounts for a significant percentage of vaginal, vulvar and anal cancers. Increasingly, HPV is considered a contributing cause of oral cancers as well.
Luckily, the HPV vaccine can help significantly reduce many of these cancer cases. In fact, since the HPV vaccine was introduced in 2006, HPV infections have dropped by more than half among teenage girls ages 14-19, according to a recent study.
Boys and girls should get the HPV vaccine
I strongly recommend that both boys and girls be vaccinated by age 11-12, but they may be vaccinated as early as 9. We recommend these young ages because the HPV vaccine is most effective if used before sexual activity begins. However, girls ages 13-26 and boys ages 13-21 who have not been previously vaccinated should also get vaccinated.
Keep in mind that the vaccine won't help much once an HPV infection has been acquired. The vaccine also can't be used to treat HPV.
As the new study from the CDC shows, the HPV vaccine's long-term health impact may be very beneficial. The more people who receive the vaccine, the less HPV infections spread. That means fewer cancer diagnoses.
HPV vaccine isn't a substitute for Pap tests or birth control
If you're a parent considering the HPV vaccine, talk to your kids about it. It's important for them to understand what the HPV vaccination is and what it's not.
The HPV vaccine will not prevent any other sexually transmitted disease. It also will not prevent pregnancy. The vaccine only prevents HPV.
It's also important to keep in mind that after receiving an HPV vaccine, women still need to get their annual exam, Pap tests and HPV tests.
HPV vaccine is highly effective
Previously, two HPV vaccines were available in the United States: Cervarix and Gardasil. In December 2014, a third vaccine, known as Gardasil 9 or HPV 9, was released. All three are highly effective, FDA-approved and are administered in three doses over six months.*
Keep in mind that the vaccines became available for the first time in 2006, so there are things we don't know yet about their long-term efficacy. However, even if you've had a previous HPV infection, getting the vaccine may prevent you from contacting another strain of HPV in the future.
When the vaccine was first introduced, it was not without controversy. Available initially only for girls, there was some concern that vaccination would result in increased sexual activity among younger females. Others felt that there was pressure to vaccinate girls too quickly, without all the facts.
HPV vaccine: A smart way for parents to protect kids against cancer
That controversy has died down more recently as more evidence has revealed the effectiveness of the vaccine, but my patients still ask if they should have their kids vaccinated for HPV. As a doctor, I tell them yes, that the HPV vaccine is an exciting medical breakthrough in our efforts to eliminate cancer.
I don't have kids yet, but when I do, they'll receive the HPV vaccine. Knowing that their chances of developing certain types of cancer in their life would be greatly diminished is worth it to me.
Jennifer Burzawa, M.D., is assistant professor in Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine. She works at MD Anderson in Katy.
*This post was updated on January 6, 2015.