There’s an awful lot of misinformation out there about HPV and the HPV vaccine. Let’s see what I can do to clear up the confusion. Here are eight myths I find myself having to continually address with my patients. Let’s bust ’em!
Myth#1 – HPV is forever
Wrong. 90-95% of the time, HPV infections clear without any treatment. For those women with persistent HPV infection, we have pap smears to detect and treat precancerous lesions (dysplasia) years before they become invasive cancer.
Myth #2 – If I’ve had the HPV vaccine, I don’t need Pap smears.
Wrong again. While the HPV vaccine is highly effective against the HPV strains it targets, and those strains together cause in excess of 70% of all cervical cancers, you are not 100% protected. Sorry. Until we have a vaccine that protects against all the cancer-causing subtypes, you’ll need to get your pap smears.
The good news in this front is that both Gardasil and Cervarix are showing cross-reactivity against other cancer causing strains of HPV so we may be getting a bigger bang for our buck than we initially thought. Stay tuned..
Myth #3 – The HPV Vaccine is dangerous.
Actually, it’s quite safe. A recent comprehensive review of HPV vaccine safety studies to date, some with over a million subjects each, found no serious health risks from the vaccine.
Like all vaccines and injections, HPV vaccination can cause some local irritation on the arm, and some young girls faint afterwards. This is not serious.
Myth #4 – The HPV Vaccine is a Scam
No, it’s not.
There are valid arguments to be made as to whether the HPV vaccine is the most cost effective approach to eradicating cervical cancer in the US, where most women are already getting pap smears, and where those at highest risk (women who can’t afford pap smears) probably can’t afford the vaccine either. And we won’t get into the ridiculously high cost of the vaccine, or how fear mongering and politics have been used to market the HPV test and its vaccine. (I’ve written enough about this before). But that doesn’t make it a scam. The vaccine is real and it works.
Some have raised legitimate concerns that the vaccine’s efficacy could wane over time, effectively just delaying but not preventing cervical cancers. Fortunately, this has not panned out to date – the vaccine has shown no decline in immunity for up to 9 years. Time will tell on this one, but so far, so good.
Bottom line is that the HPV vaccine is safe and effective. I see no reason why young women should not get the vaccine. (My kids have gotten it, by the way.)
Myth #5 – The HPV Vaccine causes sexual promiscuity
Myth $6- If I have HPV there is nothing I can do about it.
You’re not powerless – there are some things you can do. In addition to getting your pap smears, you can help your immune system clear the virus in three ways –
- Use condoms. By decreasing the exposure of your body to more virus, you’ll free your mmune system up to clear the virus you already have.
- Get 4-6 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Women who do so clear the virus sooner than women who don’t.
- Don’t smoke. If having HPV is your wake up call to quit the cigs, then so be it. Ask your doc for help if you need it to get off nicotine.
Myth #7 – All HPV Tests are the same.
Not true. Some are FDA approved, some are not. Ask your doc which test he/she uses, and be sure its an FDA approved test.
Myth #8- I can’t get the HPV vaccine if I’m over age 26.
Actually you can probably get it if you really want it. But you may not need it.
The vaccine is only FDA-approved up to age 26. That’s because by that time, most women have had one or more HPV infections already. From a public health perspective, it doesn’t make much sense to vaccinate a population against a virus that most are already immune to.
But on an individual basis, the vaccine could be effective if you’ve had very few sexual partners and have never been infected with the HPV strains targeted by the vaccine or had genital warts. Even if you have, there’s no way to know what HPV strains you may already be immune to – the HPV test is not strain specific. (Although one test does detect HPV16/18). I do not recommend getting HPV tested just for this purpose.
I’m hearing that some insurers will pay for the HPV vaccine even in women over age 26. And if they don’t, you can pay for it yourself. Talk to your doctor and make your own choice.
More TBTAM posts on HPV