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What is HPV (Human Papillomavirus) and Why am I at Risk of Cancer?

After getting to know some of the parents, I have learned that there are those who do not want their child to be vaccinated for HPV. Some parents may be worried that their child is too young to receive the vaccine, or believe they’re not in a high-risk group.

Worldwide, over half a million women are diagnosed with threatening cervical cancer and about 260,000 women die from cervical cancer every year. It is the 4th most common cancer in women.

As a health professional, I know that vaccines offer huge benefits and prevent many kids from getting badly hurt. My daughter Madi will be getting the HPV vaccine to help protect her from cancers in adulthood.

What Exactly is Human Papillomavirus or HPV?

HPV is a virus that only infects humans and is the most common sexually transmitted infection. There are over 100 types of HPV, but only some of them are sexually transmitted and can cause genital warts or cancers of the cervix (a part of the woman’s anatomy situated at the top of the vagina) and cancers of the penis. The virus itself is spread through sexual intercourse or contact of the genitals or the infected area and infects both men and women. 70% of precancerous lesions and revival cancers are caused by two types of HPV (16 and 18), however other “strains” of HPV are associated with illnesses like genital warts.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of HPV Infection?

The majority of infections do not cause any symptoms. It can lead to genital and non-genital warts. Persistent infection may cause precancerous lesions and potentially cervical cancer

What Can Happen When Your Body Does Not Clear an HPV Infection? 

Many HPV infections resolve themselves and do not cause any health problems, but some persist. For women who get regular Pap tests, low-grade changes to the cells will be detected earlier. Cell damage from the HPV virus does not always lead to cancer, but it is very important to have regular checkups so that any cells that may be changing can be detected early.

What Type of Cancers is HPV Linked To?

  • Cervical Cancer: Virtually all cases of cervical cancer are attributable to HPV infection.
  • Penile Cancer
  • Cancers of the anus
  • Vulvar and Vaginal Cancer 
  • Cancers of the head and neck – HPV can result in changes in tissues within the mouth and throat. 

Who is At Risk For HPV Infection? 

Genital HPV infections are most often transmitted by sexual contact (genital-genital, anal-genital), so it is important that anyone who is sexually active can be at risk. Not only does regular cancer screening with your family doctor put you in the best position to catch HPV-related malignant cells, but also vaccinations are another option for people to fight against them. The biggest risk factors for HPV include:

  • Having more sexual partners increases the likelihood of HPV infection
  • Early first sexual intercourse
  • Use of tobacco and smoking 
  • Being immunosuppressed (such as having HIV) 

The HPV Vaccine is Important because it protects against up to 9 strains of Human Papillomavirus and Can Protect You from Developing an HPV Infection

There are currently three vaccines available: Cervarix, Gardasil, and Gardasil 9. In Canada and the US, only Gardasil 9 is available.

Gardasil 9 protects against 9 different strains of HPV. HPV strains 16 and 18 are responsible for about 70% of cervical cancers worldwide. Gardisil 9 also covers 7 other strains of HPV that put men and women at risk of anal and genital cancers.

The Gardasil vaccine is three doses given over six months (at 0, 2, and 6 months).

Who should get the HPV Vaccination?

HPV vaccination is recommended for both females and males. It works best when it is given before a person gets infected with HPV, so it is recommended to be given before a person starts having sexual intercourse. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) in the United States recommends the following:

  • For young boys and girls: The HPV vaccination is recommended for boys and girls aged 11 to 12 years old. The vaccine can be safely administered to young boys and girls as early as 9 years old. 
  • The HPV vaccine is recommended for everyone between the ages of 9 and 45.
  • For females aged 13-26 and males aged 13-21 who missed the vaccination or didn’t get all the shots they needed, they can “catch up” on the vaccination.

This post was co-authored by Stephanie Liu, MD, MSc, CCFP, BHSc, and Suzanne Black, MD, BSc.

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