HPV vaccination: Why you should get it by Dr T
HPV (Human Papillomavirus) infection is one of the most contracted sexually transmitted illnesses (STIs). Though HPV is usually harmless and can go away by itself, certain types can lead to cancer or genital warts. When we get vaccinated for HPV, our bodies respond by creating antibodies that’ll fight the virus if we get infected.
Before I begin, it’s important to note that HPV vaccination doesn’t protect against other STIs such as HIV, chlamydia, etc. The vaccine isn’t a contraceptive either- if a person doesn’t want to fall pregnant, they’ll need to use a contraceptive and condoms to practise safer sex.
HPV can cause skin warts
HPV is known for causing skin or mucous membrane growths called warts. Although our body’s immune system can defeat an HPV infection before it creates warts, when they do appear, they can vary in appearance depending on which type of HPV you have. The most common type is genital warts which appear mostly on the vulva, but can also occur near the anus, cervix, in the vagina, penis or scrotum. They can appear as flat lesions, or small cauliflower-like bumps. Genital warts rarely cause discomfort or pain, though they may itch or feel tender.
HPV can cause cancer
There are more than 100 types of HPV . Some types of HPV infection can lead to certain types of cancer. Cervical cancer is the most common, but HPV can also cause cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, or the throat. HPV is thought to be responsible for more than 90% of anal and cervical cancers, about 70% of vaginal and vulvar cancers, and 60% of penile cancers.
HPV can increase the risk of developing cancerous cells in your cervix, which could affect your fertility and pregnancy journey.
Symptoms aren’t always visible
The tricky thing about HPV is that it doesn’t always have signs or symptoms, so you could easily have the virus and not know it. Early cervical cancer also doesn’t show any symptoms so it’s important to go for regular screening tests to detect any changes in the cervix that might lead to cancer.
A pap smear is the key recommended screening test to detect cervical cancer and I recommend that girls go for their first pap smear as young as possible.
Prevention is key – get vaccinated
The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends routine HPV vaccination for girls and boys aged 11 and 12, although it can be given as early as age 9. It's ideal for girls and boys to receive the vaccine before they have sexual contact and are exposed to HPV. Response to the vaccine is better the younger you are, and before infection. Once someone is infected with HPV, the vaccine might not be as effective or might not work at all.
In South Africa, the Department of Health routinely vaccinates young girls in schools from Grade 4, or from the ages of 9. It’s important to understand why girls receive the vaccine at schools, and to encourage your parents and other girls to receive the vaccine when called upon to do so.
The recommendation is that all 11 and 12-year-olds receive two doses of HPV vaccine at least six months apart.
Younger adolescents ages 9 and 10 and teens ages 13 and 14 also are able to receive vaccination on the updated two-dose schedule.
Teens and young adults who begin the vaccine series later, at ages 15 through 26, should continue to receive three doses of the vaccine.
Side effects of HPV vaccination
The side effects are usually mild. The most common side effects of HPV vaccines include soreness, swelling or redness at the injection site.
Getting vaccinated against HPV infection is your best protection from cervical cancer. Vaccines can help protect against the strains of HPV most likely to cause genital warts or cervical cancer.
Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng (MBChB) is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, a medical doctor at DISA Clinic in Johannesburg, with a focus on sexual and reproductive health and rights, as well as a senior lecturer and a broadcaster.
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