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Updated Jan. 20, 2022
Each year, around 14 million people in the U.S. are infected with human papillomavirus, or HPV. Most will never know it. But for some, the infection may prove deadly.
That's because the vast majority of cervical cancer cases are caused by two strains of the virus. And cervical cancer is difficult to treat, especially if it has spread beyond the cervix.
"These are devastating cancers, usually do not cause symptoms to a person until quite advanced and not easy to treat," says Ganesh Namachivayam, M.D., a pediatrician at Mayo Clinic Health System in Barron and Rice Lake. "I strongly recommend this vaccine to all of my patients."
Who and when to vaccinate
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 92% of cancers caused by HPV could be prevented by vaccination. The best time to receive the HPV vaccine is before exposure to the virus, which is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. The immunization is approved for ages 9–26.
The CDC recommends all 11- and 12-year-olds receive two doses of HPV vaccine at least six months apart. Teens and young adults up to age 26 also can be vaccinated. Some adults ages 27–45 may decide to get the HPV vaccine based on discussion with their health care providers.
Side effects and safety
The CDC and Food and Drug Administration monitor vaccines in the U.S., and have a wealth of data on the safety and effectiveness of the HPV vaccine. Potential side effects are mild and similar to those that might be experienced with other vaccines, such as soreness, swelling or redness at the vaccination site.
Less common side effects include headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue or weakness. And though rare, the HPV vaccine causes some people to feel dizzy or faint. Sitting for 15 minutes after the injection can lower the risk of fainting.
"The bottom line is that this is a safe, effective vaccine that can prevent several types of cancer in both boys and girls," Dr. Namachivayam says. "It's an easy way for parents to protect their kids far into the future, and it will benefit them for the rest of their lives."
Not just for kids
Vaccines for adults are recommended based on age, prior vaccinations, health, lifestyle, occupation and travel destinations.
The schedule is updated every year, and changes range from the addition of a new vaccine to tweaks of current recommendations. To determine exactly which vaccines you need now and which vaccines are coming up, check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.