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What the experts want you to know about the HPV vaccine

About 80 million people are infected with HPV right now in the United States. Vaccines are currently available for both males and females to help prevent the virus, which can be linked to various cancers, such as cervical cancer. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin W. Stratton) About 80 million people are infected with HPV right now in the United States. Vaccines are currently available for both males and females to help prevent the virus, which can be linked to various cancers, such as cervical cancer. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin W. Stratton)

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Each year, about 12,000 new cases cervical cancer are diagnosed. Most of these cases can be linked to an often undetected but widespread virus: human papillomavirus (HPV). Military Health System immunization experts are urging people to talk to their physicians about a vaccine that’s available for both males and females and nearly 100 percent effective in preventing HPV.

Dr. Bruce McClenathan, medical director of Defense Health Agency Immunization Healthcare Branch (DHA-IHB) regional office at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, says that while the infection can resolve on its own in most people, it can be persistent in some.

“We worry about HPV because it is so closely associated with certain cancers, specifically cervical cancer in women,” said McClenathan, adding that it has also been linked to penile, vaginal, vulvar, anal and oropharyngeal cancers, as well as genital warts.

Right now, about 80 million people in the United States, or one in four Americans, have at least one strain of HPV out of more than 100 existing strains. Nearly 14 million new cases of HPV infections appear every year, usually affecting those between the ages of 15 and 59, McClenathan said.

Most people also show no signs or symptoms of having an HPV infection, which spreads through direct, usually sexual, contact.

Two HPV vaccines, Gardasil and Gardasil 9, are available for both males and females. A third vaccine, Cervarix, is available for females only. All three are given in three doses over six months and protect against high-risk strains 16 and 18, which are responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancers, said McClenathan. Gardasil and Gardasil 9 also protect against two other strains that are responsible for most cases of genital warts.

“The prevalence of these genotypes in females aged 14 to 19 decreased by 64 percent after introduction of the HPV vaccine,” said McClenathan. “Among females ages 20 to 24, the prevalence decreased by 34 percent, so we clearly know the vaccine is effective.”

The vaccine is approved for ages nine through 26 for females and 21 for males. Males with weakened immune systems can receive the vaccine through the age of 26. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends 11 to 12 year olds as the target age for receiving the vaccine, said McClenathan. The immunization is most effective before a person is exposed to the virus, he said.

“We do that with all vaccines,” said McClenathan. “We look at when is the vaccine most effective and we give it at that time.”

Getting the HPV immunization is part of the larger effort by the MHS to make sure all vaccinations for all its beneficiaries are up-to-date.

“Immunizations are really our top public health achievement,” said Army Col. Margaret Yacovone, Chief, DHA-IHB. “Routine vaccinations have led to drastic reductions in the prevalence of common diseases and the eradication of more serious illnesses, such as smallpox. Through global vaccination efforts we are also nearing the eradication of polio.”

Yacovone added the HPV vaccine in particular is extremely effective in stopping those most dangerous types of HPV that cause cervical cancer.

“All it is,” said McClenathan, “is simply a virus, but it can cause a lot of problems.”

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