About forty types of HPV have been identified. Although most HPV infections do not cause any symptoms and will clear up on their own, HPV remains a concern because it can cause cervical cancer in women and penile cancer in men. In the United States alone each year, about 12,000 women get cervical cancer, and about 4,000 die of this disease. It is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among women around the world.
More than 50 percent of sexually active men and women will be infected with HPV at some time in their lives. No treatment exists for HPV infection, but the conditions it causes can be treated. In addition to cervical cancer, HPV can also cause genital warts and warts in the upper respiratory tract, which are readily treatable.
HPV is a virus passed from one person to another during skin-to-skin contact, including vaginal, oral, and anal sex. HPV is most common in people in their late teens and early twenties. Although a majority of sexually active people will get HPV at some point, most will never know it. In the majority of cases, the body naturally fights off HPV before the virus causes any health problems. In some cases, however, the body does not fight off the infection, and HPV can cause significant health problems. Although genital warts are certainly not life threatening, they can cause considerable emotional stress, and their treatment can be very uncomfortable. The same cannot be said for cervical cancer.
The only practical solution is the newly developed HPV vaccine, which is an inactivated (not live) vaccine that protects against four major types of HPV. These include the two types that cause about 70 percent of cervical cancer and the two types that cause about 90 percent of genital warts. The HPV vaccine can prevent most genital warts and most cases of cervical cancer. The protection provided by the HPV vaccine is long lasting, but vaccinated women still need cervical cancer screening because the vaccine does not protect against all HPV types that can cause cervical cancer.
The HPV vaccine is routinely recommended for females nine through twenty-six years of age and for males thirteen through twenty-one years of age. The most common vaccine on the market is Gardasil, which prevents cervical cancers and anal cancers, as well as vulvar and vaginal cancers in women and genital warts in both men and women. The vaccine is given in a series of three shots over six months. Girls and young women should get HPV vaccine before their first sexual contact—before they have been exposed to HPV. When given before exposure to the virus, the vaccine can prevent almost 100 percent of disease caused by the four major types of HPV. Receiving the vaccine before sexual contact allows the body to build up antibodies to the virus before being exposed. Unfortunately, if a girl or woman is already infected with a type of HPV, the vaccine will not prevent disease from that type of virus.
The HPV vaccine is extraordinarily safe. More than 57 million doses have been distributed to date, and no serious safety concerns have been reported. The most common side effects are mild and include pain, itching, redness, or swelling at the injection site and mild or moderate fever. These symptoms do not last long and will go away on their own.
Although Gardasil has been heavily promoted to and used primarily for girls and young women, it is for boys and young men as well. This vaccine can help prevent males from getting infected with the types of HPV that can cause cancers of the mouth, throat, penis, and anus and can also help prevent genital warts. HPV vaccination of males is also likely to benefit females by reducing the spread of HPV viruses.
Mounting evidence from multiple sources around the world suggest strongly that HPV vaccination—for both males and females—not only is the right thing to do but also poses essentially no risk and has the potential of reducing the incidence of the cancers, warts, and other maladies caused by HPV.
Dudley S. Danoff, MD, FACS is the attending urologic surgeon and founder/president of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center Tower Urology Group in Los Angeles, California. He is the author of The Ultimate Guide to Male Sexual Health: How to Stay Vital at Any Age (Del Monaco Press, 2015) and Superpotency (Warner Books).