Younger is better, but…
Bottom line on top: There is a benefit to getting the HPV vaccine after 26.
The HPV vaccine protects against the most common types of viruses that not only cause cervical cancer, but mouth, throat and anal cancers, as well.
It’s most effective when given before a child becomes sexually active.
But what about all the 20-somethings out there who didn’t have access to this vaccine? After all, it’s only been available since 2006, and before 2011 it was only offered to girls.
Is there any benefit, especially for young men, to getting vaccinated in your twenties?
I found an interesting article written by a journalist who asked the same question—because he is himself a 20-something.
Despite my age, researchers I talked to said that the vaccine could still help — if I haven’t already been exposed.
But therein lies a complication. An estimated 80 percent of sexually active people will be exposed to HPV by age 45. In most people, the virus goes away on its own after two years. For men, there’s no commercially available test to find out if you have been exposed. Women can be checked for HPV exposure as part of a Pap test.
To have 80 percent of sexually active young adults exposed sounds bleak. But there’s a caveat: “There are several dozen types of HPV that infect the genital region,” says psychologist Greg Zimet, who co-directs the Center for HPV Research in Indianapolis. Only a fraction of those cause cancer or warts, and the latest version of the vaccine Gardasil protects against nine of those HPV types — the ones responsible for a vast majority of HPV-related problems.
“The chances you’ve been exposed to all nine types are actually vanishingly small,” says John Schiller, a microbiologist who studies HPV and HPV vaccines at the National Cancer Institute.
He concluded getting the vaccine was worth it. Because he was older than 26 and fell outside of the recommended age group for the vaccine, his insurance would not cover it and he had to pay for it out of pocket. It’s not cheap, roughly $130 per dose (you need 3), but compared to a diagnosis of cancer it’s a deal.
I forwarded the article to my 25-year-old son. The vaccine was not recommended for boys when he was a preteen, or else I would have had him get it. I don’t know what he will decide, but I wanted him to have the information.
Men might be more at risk from HPV infection
The number of young men diagnosed with head and neck cancers has been increasing. Cancers that were caused by HPV.
HPV is sexually transmitted. Oral sex moves the virus from the genitals to the mouth. It’s no coincidence that as oral sex has become a more common practice, so, too, have head and neck cancers.
And men might be especially vulnerable to the viruses.
The majority of women develop antibodies to clear HPV when exposed vaginally. These antibodies remain in the body so that a woman is protected from a subsequent oral infection. Men, in contrast, are much less likely to develop antibodies after genital exposure to the virus. When tested, their titers — a measurement of antibodies — are lower, leaving them five times more likely than women to have an oral infection.
I would encourage young men who haven’t been vaccinated to talk with their health care providers for more information.
Parents—the HPV vaccine works!
The HPV vaccine has been in the news lately because the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently announced that it was changing its recommendation on how many shots were needed for children aged 9-14 (the best ages range to be vaccinated).
Rather than three shots, now only two are required. Children over 14 still need all three, however.
The HPV vaccine works. The CDC reported last year that HPV infections had dropped by 64% among females aged 14 to 19 years and by 34% among those aged 20 to 24 years.
But many parents (and physicians!) still have reservations. Perhaps they don’t like vaccines in general, or are too embarrassed to talk about a sexually-transmitted disease, or the cost is too great.
I like these two videos. First, Dr. Mike Evans explains the importance of the vaccine:
In the next video, pediatrician Aaron Carroll, MD, helps answer questions about the vaccine’s safety (because anti-vaxxers love spreading scary stories on the internet).
This post has been updated since its original publication in 2017.