Help your kids prevent cancer
Although the human papillomavirus (HPV) is quite common, the facts surrounding it can be confusing.
Who can get HPV? How do they get it? Can it be treated? How safe and effective is the HPV vaccine?
These and other questions have led to misinformation among men, women and parents trying to make decisions about the HPV vaccine for their children.
With several strains of HPV linked to cancer, MD Anderson experts — Lois Ramondetta, M.D., professor in Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine, and Erich Sturgis, M.D., professor in Head and Neck Surgery and Epidemiology — help dispel some common HPV myths.
“Many HPV-related cancers can be prevented if people know the truth,” Sturgis says.
Myth #1: Only women can get HPV.
HPV is common among both men and women. About 80% of people will get an HPV infection at some point in their lives.
In most cases, HPV goes away on its own. When it remains, it can lead to genital warts and several types of cancer. This includes cervical cancer, anal cancer, penile cancer, vaginal cancer, vulvar cancer and oropharyngeal cancer (tonsils and base of tongue).
Myth #2: People with HPV show symptoms.
Most people with HPV don’t know they’re infected and never develop symptoms or health problems from it.
In 90% of cases, your immune system fights off the infection within two years.
Myth #3: You must have sexual intercourse to get HPV.
HPV is spread by intimate skin-to-skin contact. While most cases are sexually transmitted, people who haven’t had intercourse can become infected.
Using condoms helps, but they don’t completely protect you against the virus. They don’t cover all of the genital skin.
Myth #4: There are treatments for HPV.
There is no cure or treatment for the HPV virus. But there are ways to treat HPV-related health problems, such as precancerous lesions and genital warts.
Myth #5: HPV interferes with pregnancy.
In the majority of cases, having HPV does not impact a woman’s ability to become pregnant.
If you’re pregnant and have HPV, you can get genital warts or develop abnormal cell changes on your cervix. Regular screening can find these and your doctor can treat them.
Becoming pregnant after receiving the HPV vaccine is safe. The vaccine does not affect a fetus.
Myth #6: The HPV vaccine protects you for life.
The vaccine is effective for at least 10 years. But doctors are optimistic that it will provide more long-lasting protection.
If further study shows the vaccine is losing its effectiveness, a booster vaccine may be required.
Myth #7: The HPV vaccine causes teens and preteens to become sexually active.
No research links the HPV vaccine to increases in sexual activity. Boys and girls who get the vaccine don’t have sex earlier than those who haven’t received the vaccine. Also, they don’t have more partners after they become sexually active.
Myth #8: The HPV vaccine may cause medical problems.
The HPV vaccine is a safe drug and doesn’t contribute to any serious health issues. Like any vaccine or medicine, the vaccine may cause mild reactions. The most common are pain or redness in the arm where the shot is given.
Myth #9: You got the HPV vaccine, so you can skip your Pap test.
Absolutely not. Because no vaccine prevents all types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer, vaccinated women age 21 to 29 should still receive Pap tests every three years.
Women age 30 to 64 also should get a Pap test and an HPV every five years. The HPV test checks your cervix for the virus that can cause abnormal cells that lead to cervical cancer. It may show that more frequent screening is needed.
Women age 65 or older should discuss their individual need for screening with their doctor.
“The HPV vaccine protects against high-risk types of HPV that can cause cancer,” Ramondetta says. “Boys and girls age 11 to 12 should receive the vaccine. That’s when the immune system is at its best to respond to the vaccine.”
The HPV vaccine can be given to males and females as early as age 9 and up to age 45.
“It is a health vaccine to prevent cancer. So don’t wait until it’s too late,” Ramondetta says.