When it comes to vaccines, particularly the HPV vaccine, it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that girls and boys aged 11 or 12 years be vaccinated against HPV, the human papillomavirus, which can be spread during sexual activity and can cause cervical cancer in women and cancers of the genital and throat regions in both sexes. The two available HPV vaccines – Cervarix and Gardasil – protect against most of the cancers caused by HPV infection (Gardasil is approved for males and females).
Here are some common myths and misconceptions about HPV:
MYTH: Only girls need to be vaccinated against HPV infection.
FACT: While the vaccines protect against about 70 percent of cervical cancers, they also provide protection against most of HPV-related genital cancers in men, and against 90 percent of genital warts in women and men.
MYTH: Only people who are sexually active need to be vaccinated.
FACT: Even if one is not sexually active at the time of vaccination, the vaccine provides protection when sexual activity begins or resumes. The vaccine works best when given at a younger age; research shows that young people generate more disease-fighting antibodies in response to the vaccine than those vaccinated in their late teens.
MYTH: Only people with multiple sexual partners can get HPV.
FACT: Infection can occur from a single partner, in a single instance of sexual activity.
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MYTH: Women who get the HPV vaccine don’t need a Pap test.
FACT: Women who are vaccinated against HPV still need to get regular Pap smears to screen for cervical cancer. Both Gardasil and Cervarix protect against the two most common strains of HPV that cause cervical cancer in he United States (HPV-16 and HPV-18). (Garadsil 9, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December, protects against nine strains in all.)
MYTH: The vaccine can transmit the virus and cause cancer.
FACT: The vaccine cannot spread HPV infection or cause cancer or other HPV-related diseases such as genital warts.
MYTH: Condoms can prevent transmission of HPV.
FACT: They offer only partial protection, as they don’t cover all portions of the genitals.
MYTH: The odds of contracting an HPV infection are quite low.
FACT: HPV infection is actually quite common and the virus is spread by skin-to-skin contact. It’s true that most cases of HPV infection are sexually transmitted, but even people who have never had sexual intercourse can be infected by the virus.
MYTH: HPV vaccines have dangerous side effects.
FACT: The vaccines are safe. The most common side effects are pain and/or redness and swelling at the site of the injection – essentially the same as those associated with most vaccines. It’s routine for patients to be monitored for an allergic reaction for 15 minutes after receiving the vaccine. Any allergic reactions that occur within that period can be quickly and successfully treated.