The human papillomavirus is a large family of viruses that are responsible for causing several cancers. Cells are basic units of life that make up every part of our bodies. They are designed to live, grow and die at a specific point in time. When cells refuse to heed the signal to die and begin to grow without control, this is called cancer. Human papillomaviruses cause a variety of cancers including cancers of the head and neck areas, anal cancers and genital warts, and cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer is the second commonest cancer in women worldwide. It ranks as the 2nd most frequent cancer among women with around 600 000 new infections in 2018. Every year more than 300 000 women die from cervical cancer, more than 85% of these deaths are in low and middle-income countries like Nigeria because of poor access to screening and treatment services.
The Human papillomaviruses are typically spread via sexual contact and by any skin-to-skin contact. They are usually found on the fingers, hands, mouth and genitals. This means that sexual activity limited to just touching or the use of sex toys may also cause a transmission of the virus. Most sexually active people will get HPV at some point in their lives.
Most people can fight off the HPV infection with no hassles but some people do not effectively get rid of the infection and it causes changes to cells of their bodies that may lead to cancer. There are over 150 viruses in the HPV family and each one is called a type. They are commonly in moist areas of the body like the vagina, anus, cervix, vulva, inner foreskin and urethra of the penis. HPV types 16 and 18 are termed “high risk” because they are responsible for the greatest share of cancers and genital warts.
What are the different types of HPV vaccines?
There are two main types of the HPV vaccine, designed to prevent the most common types of human papillomavirus. These are:
- Gardasil: Has two subtypes.
These vaccines can prevent up to 90% of HPV infections, reducing the risk of having genital warts, precancerous lesions and cervical cancer. They also offer long-term protection against new HPV infections.
Who should receive the HPV vaccine?
The ideal age group for recipients of the HPV vaccines are pre-teenagers between the ages of 11 to 13. Research has shown that the HPV vaccines cause the strongest immune response in this age group and as such are most effective then. It is also important because exposure to the virus may not have happened at this age. However, the vaccines are noted to be beneficial to older persons and those who have had sexual intercourse.
The HPV vaccines are given in two (2) doses, at least six (6) months apart but up to 24 months after the first dose into the upper arm. This is given to boys and girls in their pre-teens. In persons older than 15 years of age, three (3) doses of the vaccines are required. These shots are given at the first visit, 2 months after the first dose and 6 months after the first dose.
The following persons should not receive HPV vaccines:
- People who had a severe allergic reaction to an earlier dose of the HPV vaccine or the constituent of the vaccine
- People with a yeast allergy (some HPV vaccines may be given to these people)
- Pregnant women.
- A moderately or severely ill person.
Men who have sex with other men and transwomen are encouraged to speak with their healthcare provider regarding HPV vaccinations due to an increase of infections with the HPV vaccine.
Are there any side effects of the vaccine?
There are side effects that may occur after receiving the HPV vaccine. However, they are uncommon and typically mild. The most commonly encountered side effects are:
- Pain or redness at the area of the injection
- Muscle or joint pain
- Swelling at the site of the injection
- Headaches or fatigue
What tests do I need to do before receiving the vaccine?
An HPV test is not necessary before the test because it does not show the type of HPV infection you have and the vaccine may be able to prevent you from other types of HPV that you are not currently exposed to.
How long will the vaccine be valid?
A concise timeline for when the HPV vaccine wears off has not been identified but it is thought to be life-long or effective for at least 10 years. Speak with your healthcare provider if you think you need booster shots.
Do I still need cervical cancer screening after receiving the vaccine?
Although the HPV vaccine is very effective, it is not able to prevent all forms of the HPV virus. Hence, you will still need to carry out cervical cancer screening - regular cervical cancer screening (Pap and HPV tests) and follow-up.