Yes to both questions.
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a common virus that can cause cervical cancer and genital warts. The virus is passed from person to person through skin-to-skin contact, most often during unprotected sexual intercourse including vaginal, anal and oral sex.
About 20 million people (men and women) are thought to have an active HPV infection at any given time. Current estimates are that nearly three out of four Americans between the ages of 15 and 49 will be infected with genital HPV at some point in their lifetime, but most people will never have any symptoms. HPV is most common in people in their late teens and early 20s.
There are about 40 types of HPV that can infect the genital areas of men and women. Most strains cause no symptoms and go away on their own, but there are 13 high-risk HPV strains that can cause abnormalities in the cells of the cervix which can lead to cervical cancer over time. Other types of HPV affect the genital area by causing genital warts. While they are not life threatening, the treatment of genital warts can be very uncomfortable.
The FDA licensed the HPV vaccine Gardasil in 2006 for use in the U.S. on females ages 9 through 26. Women of all ages can certainly get vaccinated, however, most insurance plans, if they do cover the HPV vaccination, will only cover individuals up to 26 years of age. Gardasil protects against four strains of HPV: HPV 16 and 18, which cause 70% of cervical cancers and HPV 6 and 11, which cause 90% of genital warts.
The FDA licensed a second (currently the newest) HPV vaccine in 2009, Cervarix, for use in the U.S. for females ages 10 to 25. While both Gardasil and Cervarix protect women against high-risk HPV strains 16 and 18, which can cause cervical cancer, only Gardasil protects against HPV strains 6 and 11, which can cause genital warts. Gardasil was also recently approved for males ages 9 through 26 for prevention of genital warts caused by HPV 6 and 11.
Studies on the two vaccines found no serious side effects. The most common side effect is experiencing soreness in the arm (where the shot is given).
Whichever vaccine you choose, it works best if you have not yet been exposed to HPV (generally this means people who have not yet been sexually active). The vaccine is also beneficial, however, for people who may already be infected with one of the high-risk strains that the vaccine protects against, as they will still get protection from those types to which they not been exposed.
But remember: because the HPV vaccine doesn't protect against all types of HPV that cause cervical cancer, getting the vaccination does not take the place of regular cervical cancer screening (Pap tests).
You may want to talk with your doctor about your specific risk factors of HPV Eg: do you smoke? Have you had more than 3 sexual partners? Do you have good immune function? Have you reacted to a vaccine in the past? How old are you? Do you have any other chronic or viral illnesses? Are you consistent in getting regular pap smears and gyn exams? Are you pregnant or wanting to become pregnant soon?
Note that Gardasil only prevents against four strains of the virus and Ceravix (not as popular) protects against two. Although these are the most common strains, they by no means are not all of them, so don't let the vaccine give you a false sense of security when you're making decisions about when and with whom to be sexually active.
Many women get HPV and their immune systems resolve it naturally. This doesn't always happen, granted, which is why regular pap smears are important and why vaccination may be worth considering.
My colleague above has already given you many compelling reasons TO get vaccinated. So instead of reiterating what she's already said (salient points, if I may say so), I'll instead share some reasons to consider holding off:
- The vaccine is not approved for women over the age of 26
- It's a new vaccine, so we really don't have any evidence that it works for more than 6.4 years. (And what do you do after that time? Get re-vaccinated? The answer is: we don't know.) In other words, if a girl is vaccinated at age 11, her protection at age 17 is unclear.
- Cost: this vaccine requires 3 doses. At $150 a pop, that's almost $500 to get vaccinated.
- It is NOT safe in pregnancy, according to the FDA
- It's a new vaccine, so we likewise don't really know the long term side effects. What we do know is that compared to the meningitis vaccine (another vaccine targeted to young patients), Gardasil has resulted in three times as many emergency room visits following vaccination, and there are 30 times more reports of side effects. Some of these are short term (such as fainting and headache), but others are more serious (such as fatal blood clots and triggering of autoimmune disease) - albeit these serious side effects are very rare.
- Women taking oral birth control pills are at an even higher risk of developing a serious blood clot after vaccination.
- Some other countries are refusing the vaccine: India’s health ministry suspended its study on the efficacy of Gardasil after 4 girls died and 120 others experienced serious complications. Bhutan has refused the vaccine, and Spain has recalled it.
No matter what you decide:
- Do not get more than one dose at a time. If you experience mild side effects from one dose and decide to continue the series, wait until your adverse effects subside before getting the next dose. If you experience serious side effects from a dose, talk to you doctor about discontinuing the other doses.
- You should still get gyn exams and pap smears after vaccination.
- Do not get this vaccine at the same time as getting another vaccine.
- As with any vaccine, NEVER get vaccinated if you have a fever or other illness. Wait until you're feeling 100% better first.