The most common sexually transmitted disease affects 80 million people in the U.S., and is known to cause several types of cancer. Human papilloma virus (HPV) actually covers a group of around 200 viruses that can cause everything from genital warts to cervical cancer. While that might sound scary, there's actually a vaccine for it. So why aren't people clamoring to get it? More than 20 percent of adults have HPV, making the vaccine important for teens. Yet the immunization rates are still far behind where they should be.
According to the CDC, 1 in 4 people in the United States are currently infected with HPV. 80 percent of women will acquire it by the age of 50, and those who acquire the virus usually become infected early in their sexual lives. Men have a higher incidence of oral HPV than women — and several of those types of HPV have been linked to cancer, according to a recent CDC report. Yet just 10 percent of men are vaccinated. HPV infections can be transient: in college-age women, 70 percent tested negative after one year, and 91 percent were negative after two years. The average duration of infection was eight months, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The problem is, people can be infected with HPV and not know it because it doesn't always cause symptoms. That means someone can spread it without realizing it, and certain types can persist for years. Sometimes, people might have the infection a long time and only have symptoms years after they were infected — perhaps even developing cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. High-risk types of HPV are the most linked to various types of cancer, including cervical cancer. According to a new report from the CDC, 23 percent of those who have HPV have the high-risk type.
As unsettling as those statistics are, there is a vaccine for HPV called Gardasil, which was approved by the FDA back in 2006. The series of shots is usually given over the course of six months, starting in girls age 11-12. It subsequently became recommended for boys in the same age group. It protects against the types of HPV that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers. Within the first six years it was on the market, it reduced the rate of HPV infections in teens by 64 percent, according to TIME. That's impressive, considering the rate of vaccination is actually fairly low: only 30-40 percent of teens are getting the immunization.
While the recommendation for the vaccine series begins at age 11, teens and young adults up to age 26 (for women) and 21 (for men) should get the vaccine if they missed that initial immunization window, according to the CDC. Ideally, preteens should get vaccinated so that their bodies have enough time to develop strong immunity to the HPV viruses it protects against before they become sexually active. Because HPV is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, any type of sexual activity could potentially lead to infection. Condoms are not 100 percent effective in protecting against HPV because the virus can be in places that are not routinely covered with condoms or other forms of barrier protection.
For young people who are having their first sexual experiences, misconceptions about how STDs like HPV spread can put them at risk. While education is a vital form of prevention, it shouldn't be forgotten that there is a safe and effective vaccine for HPV, too. One that doesn't just protect youth in the short term, but could potentially protect them from developing cancer later in life.