Vaccines: What you need to know
- Few people associate infection with cancer, but nearly one-fifth of all cancers in the world are caused by infections.
- One of the most important infections associated with cancer are the human papillomaviruses (HPVs) which has been shown to cause 5% of men and women’s cancer worldwide.
- 80% of the world’s adult population will contract HPV at some point in their lives, so being HPV aware and receiving the HPV vaccination is a vital step in the prevention of cancer.
What Is HPV?
HPV stands for ‘human papillomavirus’, which is a group of around 200 viruses that are responsible for over 130 deaths in Ireland each year.
Around 40 types of HPV can infect the genital tract of both men and women, yet over 75% of people in Ireland don’t really understand what HPV is.
HPV virus strains can be categorised into two types, low risk and high risk. Some of the low risk types (e.g. HPV 6 and 11,) can go unnoticed or cause genital warts, whereas high risk HPV strains are known to be cancer causing. Like other viral infections, most cases of HPV will be cleared by the body’s own immune system. However, a small percentage of people do not clear the infection, meaning the virus can remain dormant in the body, sometimes for many years. For most, 90% of new infections clear within 2 years, however, people infected with ‘high risk’ HPV types that go untreated are more likely to go on to develop cancer.
The HPV virus is very common; around eight in ten people (80%) will be infected with the virus at some point in their lives. Research shows that almost every sexually active adult will have at one point been in contact with HPV.
The majority of HPV infections do not cause any symptoms meaning many people don’t know that they have contracted the virus. This is known as being asymptomatic. This is a part of what makes HPV so dangerous.
High risk HPV strains that go untreated have been linked to
- 99.9% Cervical cancers
- 70% Oropharynx cancers
- 90% Anus cancers
- 75% Vagina cancers
- 90% Penis cancers
For more information on HPV, visit https://www.mariekeating.ie/cancer-information/hpv/
How is it passed on?
HPV is spread by close ‘skin to skin’ contact during any kind of sexual activity. This includes vaginal, anal, and oral sex or genital contact with a person that has HPV. Condoms will reduce, but not eliminate the risk of contracting HPV as the virus can affect areas not covered by a condom.
How can I protect myself?
Vaccines are the most effective way of preventing infection by the HPV virus. The HPV vaccination used in Ireland (Gardasil 9) is highly effective in preventing infection from high risk HPV strains that cause the majority of cervical cancers.
The HPV vaccine has been proven to protect against 90% of high-risk strains of HPV, providing protection to those who receive the vaccine for more than 10 years.
The vaccination for HPV is most effective when it is received by both boys and girls before they become sexually active. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends HPV vaccination for girls and boys aged 9–13 years. In some countries, older girls and even young adult women may also be vaccinated.
The vaccine is an effective protection against HPV but will not protect against strains already in the body. This is why early intervention is so important and should be undertaken by both boys and girls.
In September 2019, the Irish government put in place the National HPV Immunisation Programme, making HPV vaccinations available to all first-year girls and boys across Ireland.
Individuals can reduce their risk of getting an HPV infection by:
- Getting the HPV vaccination –HPV vaccine protects against the HPV virus which can cause cancer and genital warts in both women and men. The HPV vaccine Gardasil 9 protects against the types of HPV that cause 9 out of 10 cervical cancers. The HPV vaccine has greatly reduced cases of pre-cancers of the cervix in young women in many countries including Australia, Sweden, the US, and the UK. In countries where the HPV vaccine is used, the number of cases of genital warts has decreased dramatically in both young women and men. For more about the HPV vaccine, visit our page or click here for the information from the HSE.
- Not smoking – Smoking stops the body’s immune system from working properly, leaving a person more likely to develop HPV infections. A study done by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) showed that cervical squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) risk is 46% higher in current smokers versus never-smokers. Cervical SCC (invasive or in situ) risk increases with number of cigarettes smoked per day.
- Practicing safe sex – Reducing the number of sexual partners and the frequency of new partners can also reduce the risk. HPV can also be contracted in long-term relationship as in a one-night stand.
- Wearing a condom – Condoms can help reduce the risk of being infected with HPV, but it will not completely eradicate the risk as HPV lives on the skin in and around the whole genital area
- Leading a healthy lifestyle – Keeping your immune system (body’s natural defence against disease and infection) strong is important.
The current vaccines are highly effective in preventing infections with HPV, types 16 and 18, the types that cause most cervical and anal cancers, but this does not mean that vaccinated women do not need to participate in cervical cancer screening. Vaccination and regular screening is a powerful tool in the prevention and early detection of cancer. To learn more about Cervical screening, click here [insert screening page link]
The vaccination is very safe. More than 170 million women and girls have been vaccinated already, and the main problems that have been reported are pain at the injection site, fever, dizziness, and nausea. These are all short-term effects and no serious problems have been linked to the vaccine.
Fact v Fiction: debunking HPV myths
HPV is not a common infection:
Awareness about what HPV is and how common it is very low in Ireland. Research done by MSD shows that 53% of parents don’t worry about their sons contracting HPV, while 62% of the people think that HPV is a rare condition. Thankfully, vaccines are now available which give more than 99% protection against infection from high risk HPV types.
Only girls are affected by HPV:
HPV is most significantly linked to cervical cancer, but boys are just as susceptible to infections as girls are. HPV causes 90% of penial cancers and 90% of anal cancers, therefore it is highly recommended that boys receive the HPV vaccine.
You shouldn’t get the vaccine if you are already sexually active:
While the vaccine is most effective when received before you become sexually active, it is still recommended that you receive the HPV vaccine after this point. The vaccine won’t prevent cancer developing from HPV strains that you have already been exposed to, but they will be effective in protecting against new strains of HPV entering the body, reducing the chance of cancer development from a new infection.
The HPV Vaccine isn’t safe:
The HPV vaccine is safe. The safety of the HPV vaccine has been studied for over 13 years. Over 1 million people have been studied during clinical trials since the vaccine was licensed in 2006.
No country has raised concerns about the safety of the HPV vaccine. There is no scientific evidence in Ireland that the HPV vaccine causes any long-term medical condition.
The vaccine causes HPV:
The HPV vaccine does not cause HPV infection or cancer. The HPV vaccine is made from one protein from the virus, and is not infectious, meaning that it cannot cause HPV infection or cancer. Not receiving HPV vaccine at the recommended ages can leave one vulnerable to cancers caused by HPV
For more information on Frequently Asked questions about the HPV vaccine, click here.
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