Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. The virus is spread by vaginal, anal, or oral sex and infects almost 80 million people – both men and women – yearly. Most of those infected are in their late teens or early twenties.
When certain cells in the cervix, vagina, anus, or back of the throat are infected with Human Papilloma Virus, normal cell growth can be affected and cancerous or warty lesions can develop. Each year in the United States nearly 20,000 women and over 12,000 men are affected by cancers caused by HPV. It has also been estimated that about 1% of those who are sexually active can develop genital warts during his or her lifetime. Even more disturbing is the fact that nearly 12,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer yearly and 4,000 women die from this disease annually even with screening and treatment.
In medicine often the most effective means of keeping patients free from disease is prevention, and the best way to prevent HPV and its complications of cancer and genital warts is the HPV vaccine. To date this is the only vaccine released for use in the United States that can directly impact forms of cancer. The Center for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that the vaccine be given as early as 11 or 12 as part of the adolescent vaccination schedule. The vaccine garners the best results when it is given before patients are sexually active. If it is started before age 15, it is given as a two shot series 6 months apart. If the vaccine is started after a patient’s 15th birthday, then a three shot series is given over a 6 month period. The vaccine works best when given earlier, but it still affords protection up until age 26 for those who have not been vaccinated.
The HPV vaccine was first used in the United States in 2006. Since its debut, it has been incredibly effective in preventing infection from HPV. It has also demonstrated an excellent safety record. Over 60 million doses of the HPV vaccine have been administered in the United States. Reported side effects include muscle soreness at the site of inoculation, dizziness, fever, and nausea for 1 or 2 days after the vaccine is given. In addition, adolescents who receive the vaccine have been shown to experience fainting. These spells are not unique to the HPV vaccine. Some patients who have blood drawn or receive other vaccines also have similar episodes, but the frequency in young patients who receive the HPV is a bit higher than that of the general population. For this reason it is prudent to have adolescents who receive the HPV vaccine monitored for 15 minutes while seated to avoid injuries that can be caused by falls.
Ultimately, the HPV vaccine is the best weapon in our arsenal against the rampant problem of HPV and its complications in our society. Over the years its impact on cervical cancer has been well documented. However, the HPV vaccine can also greatly reduce the incidence of vulvar cancer, penile, and throat cancer in both sexes. With side effects similar to that of a tetanus shot, improved use of the HPV vaccine in the health of our adolescents and young adults would no doubt go a long way toward controlling the spread of Human Papilloma Virus and improving the lives of millions in the United States.