The taboo around HPV vaccines: Here's what you need to know

Are you hesitant about taking the HPV vaccine? Uncomfortable to discuss with anyone because of the "sexually transmitted" tag? Unsure because it is not part of the mandatory immunization schedule? Is the dilemma because you think you are past the HPV vaccine age limit or you are a male? Read on to know the facts and make an informed decision.

(The information provided in this article is relevant as of April 11th, 2022)

What is HPV?

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a small, non-enveloped deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) virus with over 100 known variations (serotypes). It spreads through direct contact with infected body parts (genitalia and mouth) or shared surfaces (public showers/swimming pools). HPV infection is extremely common in sexually active men and women. The risk of contracting an infection is high among smokers, people with a weak immune system and those with many sexual partners. Most cases are asymptomatic and the bodies can get rid of the virus.

So what is the big deal?

If your body does not get rid of it, visible symptoms, such as genital warts and oral warts, can appear within a few weeks. These are caused by low-risk HPV types and are treatable.

However, some high-risk serotypes are known to cause persistent infections and cervical cancer in the long run, with a 1% chance among the overall HPV-infected population. HPV is the cause of more than 70% of all cervical cancer cases besides increasing the risk of penile, anal, vulva, mouth and throat cancers.

Hmm.. What can I do to prevent HPV infections?

Of the 14 strains of HPV associated with cancer, effective vaccines are available against nine: Cervarix (bivalent), Gardasil (quadrivalent) and Gardasil-9 (nonavalent). They have been most effective when administered between 9–13 years of age, essentially before one becomes sexually active.

The routine dosage in children under 15 is two doses at an interval of 6 months. Above 15 years and under certain special conditions for under 15, a three-dose regimen at 0, 1-2, and 6 months is advised depending on the type of vaccine used.

A comparison of available HPV vaccines.