The approved age for getting vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV) has been steadily rising since the vaccine was introduced in 2006. The HPV vaccine’s safety has remained excellent, and the benefits are proven.
Why should you get the HPV vaccine?
There has been a significant reduction in precancerous lesions and genital warts among people 15 to 24 years old, as well as 87% fewer cases of cervical cancer in women who were immunized between ages 12 and 13, compared with those who were not. That’s important because nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV.
What other cancers does the HPV vaccine prevent?
In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) approved the HPV vaccine to prevent even more cancers: head and neck cancers, like those in the back of the throat or base of the tongue. HPV is responsible for 70% of these diseases, which are grouped together as oropharyngeal cancer.
- Cervical cancer
- Anal cancer
- Head and neck cancers
- Penile cancer
- Vaginal cancer
- Vulvar cancer
How has the age range for getting vaccinated changed?
Over the years, researchers have learned more about when people should get the HPV vaccine. It was originally approved for females ages 9 through 26. Then the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended both females and males get vaccinated up to age 26. However, people up to age 45 can get vaccinated.
So if an adult in their 20s or older is considering vaccination, what should they discuss with their doctor? Two experts from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) — head and neck oncologist Anuja Kriplani and internal medicine physician and public health researcher Abraham Aragones — have answers.
Should everyone within the approved age groups get vaccinated?
Dr. Aragones: Yes, everyone eligible should get the vaccine. The current recommendation for those ages 26 to 45 is to discuss the benefits of the vaccine with their primary care doctor. The point is that there are still many benefits from getting the vaccine at that age, and my recommendation is to get it. But it’s still best for children to be vaccinated when they are about 11 or 12 years old. Getting the HPV vaccine before first sexual contact protects a person over their entire life.
Dr. Kriplani: People can acquire different strains of HPV over time. As life and your relationships change, if you’re unvaccinated, you can still acquire the higher-risk strains later in life.
Would someone know if they had HPV?
Dr. Kriplani: The only people who can know for sure are females, who can have their cervixes tested. For males, there’s no way of knowing unless you develop an HPV-associated cancer or benign condition like a wart. That’s one reason we’re seeing more and more head and neck cancers in men in their 50s and sometimes even 40s — because there’s no test to tell whether they’ve been infected.
What other reasons are causing HPV cancers to rise in young men?
Dr. Kriplani: Part of it is people having more sexual partners in their teens and 20s. HPV-related cancers are related to oral sex. The infection can happen decades before the cancer actually develops. A lot of patients ask me, “How did I get this? I’m in a monogamous relationship.” My answer is: “You didn’t get this now. It happened many, many years ago.”
A new study suggests that one dose of the HPV vaccine, instead of the recommended two or more, might offer enough protection. What do you make of that?
Dr. Kriplani: I think this is very promising early data. It sets the stage for additional studies. We would need long-term follow-up data before recommending a single-dose regimen.
Dr. Aragones: The guidelines are very clear that two or three doses of the HPV vaccine are needed for full protection. There is some initial evidence that one dose may be enough, but we’re not there yet. It’s important to note that the reason for going down to one dose is not for safety or effectiveness. We’re looking to see if it offers enough protection; if it does, it would be easier to immunize a lot of people worldwide.
What should people over age 26 consider if they want to talk to their doctor about the HPV vaccine?
Dr. Aragones: Getting the HPV vaccine later in life won’t cure HPV if someone already has it. But if a person has one strain of the virus, getting vaccinated will protect against other strains, which may include the high-risk forms. I weighed some of these factors after I was divorced. I decided it made sense to get lifelong protection. So I got the vaccine in my early 40s.
Also, people are living longer. Newly diagnosed cases of sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise among older people, meaning that sexual activity when older is not free of risk.
Do you envision the HPV vaccine age limit will increase in the future so that more people can get vaccinated?
Dr. Kriplani: I think it probably will over time. There’s not a safety issue past age 45. We just aren’t sure how much the vaccine will help men and women who are past that age, because so many of us have acquired HPV by that point, and because it takes many years for cancer to develop after acquiring the virus. However, as the average life expectancy increases, it may benefit the population to increase the age limit for HPV vaccination as well.
- The human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cervical, head and neck, and other types of cancers.
- The HPV vaccine has been shown to be safe and effective in preventing these cancers.
- The age limit for who can and should get the HPV vaccine has risen since the vaccine was approved in 2006.
- People in their 20s and older should ask their doctor if the HPV vaccine would benefit them.