Human papillomavirus (HPV) causes most cervical cancers, as well as cancers of the area in and around the vagina. Two vaccines are available to prevent these types of viruses from growing in the body and causing cancer later in life. These vaccines need to be given before a person is sexually active, as HPV is a common virus passed from one person to another through direct skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity. Most people will get this virus sometime in their lives and not even know it. Each year about 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and about 4,000 women in the U.S. die from it. Cervical cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among women worldwide.
The vaccines available are recommended for boys and girls 11 to 12 years of age. They may be given as early as age 9 and as late as age 26. Research has shown that the vaccines work best if there has never been exposure to the virus, so getting vaccinated when the body is healthy and ready to respond to vaccines is better at younger ages. The vaccines can be given with other vaccines, so any catch-up vaccines that are needed at the time can be given as well. This is a three-shot series, which your health care provider can schedule for you. Most health insurance covers the vaccines, but if your insurance has limited coverage, the Vaccines for Children (VFC) program may be able to help.
HPV vaccines do not treat existing virus infections or HPV-related disease. Research shows the vaccines have a very long-lasting effect, so getting vaccinated way before possible sexual activity and possible exposure to the virus is crucial. It will still be important for all women to continue with regular health screening, including cervical cancer screening.