Cervical cancer is caused by a virus many people get in their teens and 20s. Now there is a vaccine available to protect women from the most common cause of cervical cancer: a virus called HPV.
What is HPV?
HPV (human papillomavirus) is a common virus that affects both females and males. There are actually more than 100 types of HPV. Most of them are relatively harmless, like the ones that cause common warts on the hands and feet. For most people, the body’s own defense system will clear the virus. However, there are a few types of HPV you should really know about.
About 30 types of HPV affect the genital area.
- Some are “high-risk” types (such as HPV Types 16 and 18) that can cause abnormal cervical cells and cervical cancer.
- Others are “low-risk” types (such as HPV Types 6 and 11) that can cause genital warts.
Genital warts are usually flesh-colored growths that are most often caused by certain “low-risk” types of HPV. Anyone who has any kind of sexual activity involving genital contact can get HPV and genital warts – intercourse isn’t necessary. And many people with HPV do not have genital warts or any other symptoms, so they can pass the virus without even knowing it. The warts may appear within weeks, months – or sometimes not at all.
More common than you might think:
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 80% of women will have had genital HPV by age 50. It’s estimated that most people get HPV within their first 2 to 3 years of becoming sexually active.
A cancer vaccine?
Gardasil is a vaccine that helps protect against the following diseases (these are diseases caused by the HPV Types in the vaccine (6, 11, 16, and 18)):
• Cervical cancer
• Abnormal and precancerous cervical lesions
• Abnormal and precancerous vaginal lesions
• Genital warts
Gardasil is indicated for girls and women ages 9 through 26. The vaccine is given as a series of three injections at 0, 2, and 6 months. Gardasil is intended to prevent, not treat, the above mentioned diseases. However, you may benefit from Gardasil if you already have HPV. This is because most people are not infected with all four types of HPV contained in the vaccine. In clinical trials, individuals with one or more vaccine-related HPV types prior to vaccination were protected from disease caused by the remaining vaccine HPV types.
What about women of other ages and men?
The main purpose Gardasil is to protect women against the HPV types that cause cervical cancer. Men are obviously not at risk for cervical cancer so, at this time, there are no efforts to vaccinate men. Some men may choose, however, to get the vaccine simply for the partial protection it will give them against contracting genital warts. How effective the vaccine is at protecting men from genital warts has not yet been sufficiently studied. The age range for women is based on the fact that HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that most women encounter within the first 2 to 3 years of being sexually active.