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Here's Why Cancer Experts Want You To Get The HPV Vaccine

The National Cancer Institute is urging parents and providers to follow CDC guidelines so we can increase vaccination rates.

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You've probably heard of the HPV vaccine — the only shot that can prevent both an STI and cancer.

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There are several types of HPV, or human papillomavirus, some of which can cause genital warts and others that can lead to cancer. The current 9-valent HPV vaccine protects against nine types of HPV, many of which can lead to cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and throat.

About 6 out of 10 girls and 5 out of 10 boys have started the HPV vaccine series, according to the most recent CDC data on teen girls and boys, but experts want that number even higher.

Now the National Cancer Institute is backing up HPV vaccination guidelines in a big way.

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In a joint statement released this week by 69 National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated cancer centers, experts encouraged parents and providers to follow new CDC guidelines for HPV vaccination.

As of October 2016, the CDC now recommends that all 11- to 12-year-olds receive two doses of the HPV vaccine at least six months apart. This new rule replaces the previous recommendation of three doses for everyone, after clinical trials found that two doses of the vaccine were sufficient for children age 9–14. If you initiate the shots after age 15, the recommendation is still three doses.

"The biggest problem is that not all providers are approaching adolescents [about this] when they come in for their 11- to 12-year-old shots, like Tdap and meningococcal vaccines," Electra Paskett, PhD, co-program leader of the Cancer Control Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, tells BuzzFeed Health. "We want all physicians to make a strong recommendation when a child comes in for any health visit during that age group to get the three vaccines together."

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What if you're over the age of 15 and you never got vaccinated? The CDC also recommends the HPV vaccine for:

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• All women through age 26

• All men through age 21

• All transgender people through age 26

• All men who have sex with men through age 26

• All men with immunocompromising conditions (including HIV) through age 26

What about after age 26? "We don't have any evidence of harm after age 26 but because the vaccine isn't licensed after age 26 the use would be considered off-label so it would be up to the clinician," Dr. Elissa Meites, MPH, medical epidemiologist at the CDC Division of Viral Diseases, tells BuzzFeed Health.

FYI: If you've already been vaccinated, you probably got the quadrivalent HPV vaccine, the previous version which protected against four main types of HPV. No worries, you're still covered and don't need the new version of the vaccine, explains Meites.

Research over the past decade shows that the HPV vaccine has significantly reduced the number of HPV infections, genital warts, and cervical precancers.

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And this impact can be seen globally: a 2015 systematic review found that when countries had at least 50% female vaccination coverage, HPV infections were down 68% and genital warts were down 61% in teen girls aged 13–19 (when comparing the post-vaccination period to the pre-vaccination period).

TL;DR: The vaccine is working.

HPV is super common, often symptomless, and can be spread even if you wear a condom.

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HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact with someone who has the virus, so it can be passed through vaginal, anal, and oral sex. Since a condom doesn't cover the entire genital area that could be exposed to the virus, getting vaccinated is really your best protection.

Almost everyone will get HPV at some point in their lives, but most of the time the infection will clear on its own without you ever knowing you had it. "We know that about 70% of HPV infections completely go away on their own without treatment within a year," says Meites. "And about 90% go away within two years." It's the infections that persist that you need to worry about, as those can lead to genital warts and some cancers.

Since HPV is so common, the CDC doesn't recommend annual screening for it. Instead, it suggests regular cervical cancer screenings (known as a Pap test or Pap smear) for anyone with a vagina.

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There's also an HPV DNA test, which may be used along with a Pap test in certain cases. The following screening guidelines from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists are for anyone with a vagina:

• You don’t need a Pap test until age 21. (Yes, even if you’re sexually active.)
• If you’re between the ages of 21–29, you should get a Pap test every 3 years.
• If you’re between the ages of 30–65, you should get a Pap test every 3 years OR a Pap test and HPV test together every 5 years (which is preferred).
• You can stop getting routine Pap tests at age 65
if you don’t have a history of moderate/severe dysplasia or cancer AND you’ve had three negative Pap results in a row or two negative Pap/HPV results in a row, with the most recent test in the last five years.

BUT: If you have an abnormal Pap result, a history of cervical cancer, HIV, or a weakened immune system, you might need to be screened more often.

Unfortunately, there are currently no approved tests for HPV screening in penises, anuses, and throats. However, some experts recommend annual anal cancer screening for men who have sex with men.

Finally, the HPV vaccine isn't new or controversial or scary.

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It may seem like the HPV vaccine is brand new, but it's been approved for use since 2006, and it was studied extensively before that, says Meites.

"In 10 years of exhaustively reviewing safety and efficacy we've seen that these vaccines work really well," says Meites. "We haven't seen any evidence of dangerous side effects." And it's important to note that the HPV vaccine, like other vaccines, has not been shown to cause autism, according to the CDC and other major medical organizations.

Of course, for parents, the thought of needing to protect your child from future STIs can be...jarring. "But this has nothing to do with sexual promiscuity," says Paskett. "This has to do with cancer prevention."

"Anything I can do to keep people from hearing those words 'You have cancer,' I would do it," says Paskett.

The goal is to increase vaccination rates to 80% to create herd immunity, which means there is enough immunity in the population that even unvaccinated individuals are unlikely to be infected.

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