Cancer of the cervix is the fourth most common cancer affecting women worldwide. This is widely known and indeed, most modern women have regular PAP-tests to check for the early pre-cancerous treat-able stages of this cancer. What is less widely known is that cancer of the cervix is almost always caused by Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) infection. HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that usually causes no or very-few symptoms, thus mostly going unnoticed. HPV is in fact the most common STI – well over half of all sexually active adults will have or have had HPV infection in their lifetimes (but because it typically causes no symptoms they will not know about it).
There is a vaccine against HPV infection. When given to children or pre-sexually-active persons, it offers 90% protection against most strains of HPV. It is less effective in sexually-active or older persons because such persons are likely to have been exposed to HPV already (this makes the vaccine much less effective). 90% protection against the known cause of an important cancer, is really impressive.
Who should be vaccinated?
Recommendations vary in this area. For a long time, the focus was on pre-teen girls and this remains the most important group to vaccinate. But many experts are now also recommending vaccinating boys, anyone under 26 years old (male or female), men who have sex with men, transgender adults younger than 26, and anyone under 26 with impaired immunity. There is some debate about some of this and so asking your own family doctor is the best approach.
Is it safe?
Vaccines seems to have become “controversial” in some circles of late. But the medical evidence is fairly clear: all major vaccines in use today are safe overall, offering very significant benefits and very few risks. This is certainly the case with HPV infection – there are no serious side effects or known risks. That is not to say we might not discover some currently-unknown risks in the future, but as things stand the benefits far outweigh the risks.
Is it working?
Data from countries where HPV vaccination has been widely used for years is showing major declines in HPV infection, and significant declines in cancer of the cervix too. Experts (including the World Health Organisation) are starting to discuss the eventual eradication of cancer of the cervix, via widespread HPV vaccination. HPV vaccination is certainly working.
Does it encourage sex?
Some parents worry that giving this sort of vaccine may be tantamount to “permission to be sexually active”. Similar concerns are often raised around offering contraception to teenagers. This is an understandable concern but the reality is just that for the vaccine to be effective, it needs to be given before onset of sexual activity, and so the “issue” is unavoidable really. It is also true that reputable research has not shown a link between HPV vaccination and onset of sexual activity, so the fear is actually unfounded. This can be a tricky area for parents of course, and all views are to be respected. We’re not about to tell anyone what to do in and with their own families (but we do strongly suggest giving this one careful thought).
HPV vaccination seems to be a very important and valuable vaccination to give to pre-teen girls, and perhaps to all children and many young adults. As ever it is a personal choice / family decision but we do recommend discussing this with your family doctor, especially if you have young children. It may well be a life-saver your children will thank you for.