Human papillomavirus, more commonly referred to as HPV, is the name of a group of viruses that include more than 100 different strains or types. About 40 of these virus strains are sexually transmitted and can infect the genital area, including the skin of the penis, vulva (area outside the vagina), anus, and the lining of the vagina, cervix, or rectum. Some virus strains can also infect the mouth and throat.
HPV is very common; 4 out of 5 people will have HPV at some point in their lifetime. Unfortunately, most of these people will never know they have HPV, as people often show no signs of an infection. The virus usually goes away on its own; however, it can take years for the infection to completely clear the body and it can create abnormal cells in the process. These abnormal cells can be detected on a Pap test.
Some HPV virus strains cause genital warts. Genital warts are flesh-colored growths that usually appear on the external genitals. The warts may appear singly or in clusters and are usually painless, but may cause some itching or irritation
Certain virus strains are called “high-risk” types. These strains are labeled “high-risk” because they can lead to cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus, penis and throat. It may take years to develop into a cancer. Other virus strains are considered “low-risk” types and they can cause mild Pap test abnormalities or genital warts.
HPV-related cancer incidence is high in Iowa and impacts people of all genders. We have a safe, effective vaccine that can prevent 90% of the six cancers caused by HPV. Iowa currently has the highest rate of new oral cavity and pharynx (throat) cancer in the US which is often HPV-related. Approximately 70% of oropharyngeal (throat) cancer is attributed to HPV. Since the HPV vaccination was introduced in the U.S. in 2006, among vaccinated women, the percentage of cervical precancers caused by the HPV strains most often linked to cervical cancer has dropped by 40%.
How do you get HPV?
HPV can be transmitted through sexual activity that involves genital contact with a person who is infected with the virus; this includes skin-to-skin contact; and oral to genital contact. Many people who are infected may not show symptoms and don’t know that they have it, so they can pass on the virus without realizing it.
How can I tell if I have HPV?
Many people do not show any symptoms, so you need to be tested to determine if you have the virus. For people with a uterus, a Pap test can detect the presence of abnormal or precancerous cells on the cervix. This test along with your gynecological exam can help detect precancerous cells related to HPV. Doctors recommend beginning routine Pap testing and pelvic exams at age 21 for early detection. Currently, there is no HPV test available for people with penises; however, a clinician can identify genital warts if present.
Who can get the HPV vaccine?
Gardasil9® is available for those ages 9 to 26 years and for some people up to age 45. The HPV vaccine protects against 9 types of HPV which have been shown to cause anogenital warts, cervical, vaginal, vulvar, penile, anal, rectal, and oropharyngeal cancers.
It is recommended to have the vaccine series at 11-12 years of age for the best response and before being exposed to HPV. If given before age 15, it is given in a two-shot series, with the second shot given 6-12 months after the first. For those ages 15-45, the vaccine is a 3-shot series. The first is given at the initial visit, the second is given 2 months after the first shot, and the third is given 6 months after the first shot. It is very important to complete the shot series to fully protect against the HPV types.
Is there a cost for the HPV vaccine?
The average cost for the HPV vaccine itself is approximately $600 for all 3 shots. Most health insurance companies that pay for immunizations also pay for the HPV vaccine. The Federal Vaccines for Children (VFC) program covers the cost of the HPV vaccine for males and females under the age of 18 years. You can check with your health insurance provider and your state health department regarding coverage or eligibility. Also, the pharmaceutical company that makes the vaccine offers a patient assistance program for eligible patients. Contact your healthcare provider to see if you qualify.
Where can I find more information?
- Find a family planning clinic today to schedule your exam and vaccination
- American Cancer Society – HPV Vaccine Facts
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – HPV Fact Sheet
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – HPV Vaccine Safety
- National Cancer Institute – HPV and Cancer
- Iowa Immunizes – HPV Vaccine Information