Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), Cancer, HPV Testing, and HPV Vaccines : Frequently Asked Questions

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Who should be vaccinated and when?

To work best, one of the HPV vaccines should be given before any type of sexual contact with another person. Both are given as shots in a series of 3 doses within 6 months.

The American Cancer Society’s recommendations for each age group

Girls ages 11 to 12

The vaccine should be given to girls ages 11 to 12 and as early as age 9.

Girls ages 13 to 18

Girls ages 13 to 18 who have not yet started a vaccine series or who have started but have not completed the series should be vaccinated.

Young women ages 19 to 26

Some authorities recommend vaccination of women ages 19 to 26, but the American Cancer Society feels that there’s not enough evidence of benefit to recommend vaccinating all women in this age group. We do recommend that women ages 19 to 26 talk to their doctor or nurse about whether to get the vaccine based on their risk of previous HPV exposure and potential benefit from the vaccine.

Boys and young men

The American Cancer Society has no recommendation regarding the use of HPV vaccines in males. See the question below, “Can boys get the vaccine?”

Why do the vaccines have to be given at such a young age?

These vaccines will prevent the covered types of HPV only if they are given before exposure to the virus. According to the CDC, in 2011:

  • About half of girls in high school have had vaginal sex.
  • About 3% of high school students said they first had vaginal sex before age 13.

The vaccines are recommended for girls ages 11 to 12 because most girls at this age have not become sexually active. If they have been sexually active, they will likely have been exposed to only 1 or 2 types, so the vaccine will be partially protective. This is also an age when girls still will be seeing their doctor and getting other vaccinations.

How long will the vaccines prevent HPV infection?

How long a new vaccine protects people is never known when the vaccine is first introduced. Current research (which includes about 6 years of follow-up data) shows that the vaccines are effective, and there is no sign that the protection decreases with time. Research will continue to find out how long protection against HPV lasts, and if booster vaccines will be needed.

What about women older than 26? Should they get one of the vaccines?

Women over age 26 were not included in the first studies that were done to test the vaccines. This means the FDA could not approve the vaccines for this age group. Since that time, the use of Gardasil in women between 27 and 45 has been studied. It was found that the vaccine helped protect against infection and disease from the HPV types contained in the vaccine. But as was seen in other studies, it only helped the women who weren’t infected with those HPV types before vaccination. Because the risk of infection and disease from HPV is low in this age group, the vaccine didn’t seem to benefit many women. When the FDA reviewed the data, it concluded that the vaccine didn’t help enough women to justify giving it to all women up to age 45.

Are there any girls or women who should not get one of the HPV vaccines or who should wait?

Yes. Anyone with a severe allergy to latex should not get the Cervarix vaccine, and those with a severe allergy to yeast should not receive Gardasil. These vaccines should also not be given to anyone who has ever had a life-threatening allergic reaction to anything else contained in them, or anyone who has had a serious reaction to an earlier dose of HPV vaccine. Tell the doctor if the girl getting the vaccine has any severe allergies.

Pregnant women should not get either vaccine at this time. Even though they appear to be safe for both mother and the unborn baby, this is still being studied. If a woman who is pregnant does get an HPV vaccine, this is not a reason to consider ending the pregnancy. Women who are breastfeeding may safely get either vaccine.

Any woman who finds out that she was pregnant when she got the vaccine is encouraged to call the Gardasil vaccine in pregnancy registry at 1-800-986-8999 or the Cervarix vaccine in pregnancy registry at 1-888-452-9622. Information from these registries will help doctors and scientists learn how pregnant women respond to the vaccines. Pregnant women who have started a vaccine series should complete the series after the baby is born.

Can boys get the vaccine?

Yes. The FDA approved Gardasil to protect boys from certain anal cancers and pre-cancers as well as to prevent anal and genital warts. As with females, this vaccine is best given before sexual activity begins, but is approved for ages 9 to 26.

It’s not yet known if the vaccine will keep boys from passing HPV to their partners, which would also reduce cervical cancer, or if it can prevent other HPV-linked cancers in men (such as throat or penile cancer).

In 2011, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that boys and young men receive this vaccine routinely. The committee recommended that boys ages 11 and 12 be vaccinated. It also recommended vaccination of males ages 13 through 21 who had not already had all 3 shots. Vaccinations may also be given to boys as young as 9 and to men between the ages of 22 and 26.

The American Cancer Society has no recommendation about the use of either HPV vaccine in males at this time.

Last Medical Review: 05/02/2013
Last Revised: 05/02/2013