If there were a breast cancer vaccine, would you get it? For most people, the answer is a resounding yes.
Lois Ramondetta, M.D., professor in Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine at MD Anderson, says you should feel the same about the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. “It has the ability to eradicate some types of cancer. Parents shouldn’t think twice about vaccinating their kids.”
The vaccine is available for males and females ages nine to 26. MD Anderson recommends that girls and boys receive the vaccine around age 11 to 12.
Below our experts share what you need to know about the vaccine.
HPV vaccine is effective
“Nearly 80% of people will get exposed to HPV at some point in their lifetime,” says Erich Sturgis, M.D., professor in Head and Neck Surgery and Epidemiology at MD Anderson. “For kids, getting the HPV vaccine helps prevent cancer later in life.”
Since the HPV vaccine became widely available in 2006, HPV infections have dropped by more than half among teenage girls ages 14 to 19 in the United States. Ultimately, that will mean fewer cancer diagnoses.
The vaccine is most effective if given before HPV exposure. “The vaccine prevents infection. So, it won’t help if a person is already infected, and it can’t be used to treat infection,” Ramondetta says. “Plus, at age 11 to 12 the immune system is at its best to respond to the vaccine.”
And, the more people that receive the vaccine, the less HPV spreads.
Know the differences between the two types of HPV vaccine
Only Gardasil protects against the HPV types most likely to cause genital warts. It’s also the only HPV vaccine available for males, and too few are receiving it.
“Only about 20% of boys under age 18 are getting vaccinated, compared to 50% of girls,” Ramondetta says. “The effect is we’re seeing an epidemic of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers in middle-age men in the U.S.”
“So, it’s imperative that boys are vaccinated,” Sturgis adds. “It’s a safe and easy way to protect against these cancers.”
Complete the three-shot series
Both HPV vaccines are a series of three shots over six months. Your child must complete the three-shot series for maximum protection from cancer.
“Only one in three girls and fewer than one in 10 boys receive all three doses,” Sturgis says. “That has to change for the HPV vaccine to be effective.”
Need help remembering your child’s next shot? Use this chart to track your child’s HPV vaccination dates.
#1. As early as age 9
#2. 1-2 months after vaccine #1
#3. At least 6 months after vaccine #1
Side effects are minimal
The HPV vaccine side effects are similar to any other vaccine. Most occur at the site of the shot, and may include:
- Muscle soreness
The few reported serious side effects include fainting, dizziness, nausea, headaches and skin rash. Sturgis adds, “There’s no scientifically valid evidence that the vaccine causes any other medical condition, such as autism.”
It’s effective for 10 years
“The HPV vaccine will stay effective for at least 10 years,” Ramondetta says. Doctors don’t yet know if people will eventually need a booster shot.
Researchers are still following the girls and women who were part of the first studies to learn more about the vaccine’s long-term effectiveness.
Get help to cover vaccine costs
Don’t let finances keep your kids from getting this potentially life-saving vaccine. If you don’t have insurance or your insurance doesn’t cover the vaccine cost, there are ways you can still get it for your kids.
Kids ages 18 and younger can get the HPV vaccine for free through the Affordable Care Act. They also may be eligible to receive it for free through the Vaccines for Children program.
Some states or counties provide free or low-cost vaccines at public health clinics for people whose health insurance doesn’t cover them. The pharmaceutical companies who make the vaccines also may have programs to reduce costs.
HPV vaccine is the right choice
It’s important to remember that no vaccine is 100% effective, and the HPV vaccine doesn’t cover all forms of the virus. But, it does cover the types that cause more than half of cervical cancers.
“Parents need to understand the HPV vaccine shouldn’t be about sex or your child’s sexual activity. It’s a health vaccine to prevent cancer,” Ramondetta says. So, don’t wait until it’s too late to vaccinate your child.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson's Lyda Hill Cancer Prevention Center online or call 877-632-6789.