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 In Ask an Expert, OB/GYN & Women's Health, Pulse Blog

Q: When is the right time for the HPV vaccine?

Every year, about 14,480 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer. Today, the deadly disease is nearly always preventable, thanks to Pap smear screening and the HPV vaccine that the Food and Drug Administration approved in 2006.

HPV virus hard to spot
Cervical cancer is commonly caused by the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV) and can affect any woman who has been sexually active in her past. About 80 percent of all sexually active men and women are infected by HPV at some point, putting most women at risk of cervical cancer. While only some HPV strains lead to cancer, and some are cleared by our immune systems, most women don’t know if and when they’ve been infected. HPV can lay dormant for years with no symptoms at all.

Vaccinating early key to cancer prevention
Because HPV is so often silent, doctors today know that the best way to prevent infections is to vaccinate. Those who receive the vaccination series before becoming sexually active reduce the risk of certain types of HPV-related cancer by up to 99 percent.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and the American College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists recommend vaccination between 11 and 12 years old. Vaccinations at this age have been shown to double or even triple the level of protective antibody circulating in our bodies to help prevent future HPV infection.

Like all vaccines, the HPV vaccine is extremely safe. It contains no live viruses, cannot cause infection, and has been given to millions of people around the world without any reports of serious adverse effects.

HPV vaccine protects boys, too
While the HPV vaccine prevents cervical cancer in women, it protects men as well. Strains of HPV are strongly linked to throat, mouth, and other cancers. More than 9,000 unvaccinated men will be diagnosed with an HPV-related cancer this year. The HPV vaccine provides valuable protection against these cancers.

Regular Pap smears required
No vaccine is perfect, and women who have been immunized will still need to have regular Pap smears to protect their health. Regular Pap smears, supplemented with appropriate HPV screening, can usually detect pre-cancerous abnormalities, which can be successfully treated before they become cervical cancer.

Dr. Hallie Gardner, OBGYN at Vancouver Clinic

Hallie Gardner, MD.