STD Awareness Month – HPV Vaccines and Current Rates
If our HPV vaccines are becoming more and more effective, are HPV rates and HPV-related cancers on the decline?
April is STD awareness month! Although STDs aren’t a topic that healthcare professionals relish discussing, they are a subject that is important; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that there are approximately 20 million new STDs yearly in the United States.
Though STDs can and do affect all age groups, they are most prevalent in ages 15 to 24 – this age group accounts for over half of all infections, though they only account for 25% of the sexually active population.
What is HPV?
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the most common STD. There are over 200 types of HPV, and approximately 40 strains can lead to genital infections; these strains can lead to genital warts in or on the vulva, vagina, cervix, anus, rectum, scrotum, and penis. These strains can also lead to cancers of these areas, as well as the mouth and the throat. HPV can is also responsible for warts that affect other areas of the body, such as the hands and feet, but these strains are not transmitted sexually.
According to Planned Parenthood, sexually transmitted HPV infections are so common that almost everyone will get one at some point in their lives. Most people do not know because most of the strains do not cause symptoms and go away on their own. However, certain types lead to genital warts and may lead to cancer –
- HPV types 6 and 11 are known to cause genital warts. Though genital warts are a nuisance, they are considered low risk as they don’t lead to cancer or cause other problems.
- HPV types 16 and 18 are known to lead to most genital cancers, and at least a dozen other types increase the risk as well. Most women with cervical cancer have HPV of one of these types.
There is no cure for HPV, but HPV can be prevented by practicing safe sexual practices and by vaccines.
HPV Rates and Vaccines
Since the inception of HPV vaccines, there have been three that have been in use – Gardasil, Gardasil 9, and Cervarix. All vaccines are similar – they require two to three injections over a scheduled timespan, depending on the age of the person receiving the vaccine.
Gardasil 9 is the currently prescribed vaccine as it has shown the most efficacy; this vaccine targets the most types of HPV. Though all three vaccines vaccinate against HPV types 16 and 18, the types that are known to be the highest risk, Gardasil 9 also vaccinates against strains 6 and 11.
This means that Gardasil 9 vaccinates against genital warts and cervical cancer.
Vaccines do carry risk of side effects, but the side effects related to Gardasil 9 are rare. The most common side effect is pain at the injection site, and this is common with any injection. There have been concerns that Gardasil 9 may affect fertility, but several large-scale studies indicate that none of the vaccines have affected fertility – and may even improve fertility.
The CDC began collecting data related to HPV in 2003; rates of HPV between 2003 and 2006 are similar to current rates. The CDC estimates that there are 14 million new cases each year, compared to –
- 1.5 million new cases of chlamydia
- 395,000 new cases of gonorrhea
- 23,900 new cases of syphilis
- 776,000 new cases of herpes
Experts believe that the reason rates aren’t on the decline is because of misconceptions; providers may not be recommending the vaccine, parents being concerned about safety about the safety of the vaccine, as well as parents simply not knowing about the vaccine.
All of which cause teenagers and young adults to not receive the vaccine, eventually potentially leading to HPV and cancers.
Gardasil 9 does not prevent against other STDs, nor does it cause HPV to go away if it is already present when receiving the vaccine.
Other ways to prevent STDs include –
- Use barriers when having sex. Condoms are the best option and will lower the likelihood of contracting STDs overall.
- Stay healthy by consuming a healthy diet. Research indicates that having a folic acid deficiency increases the likelihood of developing an HPV infection. Another study indicated that consuming a plant-based diet reduced the likelihood of developing precancerous cells.
- Get routine screenings. Women should receive routine screenings, through Pap tests, as recommended by their healthcare providers.
Human papillomavirus (HPV). (n.d.). Planned Parenthood. Retrieved April 19, 2020, from https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/stds-hiv-safer-sex/hpv
Luo, E. (2019, June 14). What are the pros and cons of the HPV vaccine? Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/sexually-transmitted-diseases/hpv-vaccine-pros-and-cons
Radcliffe, S. (2017, April 24). Why is the HPV rate so high in the U.S.? Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health-news/hpv-rate-high-in-us#1
STD Awareness Month. (2020, April 1). Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program. https://teenpregnancy.acf.hhs.gov/events/std-awareness-month