Sexually active women between the ages of 25 and 45 are now being encouraged to get the Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine as a way of reducing their risk of HPV-related cancers, thanks to a new campaign from the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada.
Up until now, HPV vaccination programs have mainly targeted girls and young women between the ages of nine to 25, as a form of prevention. That’s because the vaccine works best before sexual exposure—so much so that boys are now offered the vaccine in many provinces, including Ontario.
But, as the new campaign notes, “the incidence of HPV is increasing among women in their 30s and 40s,” causing many believe the vaccine may prove beneficial into adulthood. HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections out there: an estimated 75 percent of sexually active Canadians will wind up with an HPV-related STI at one point in their lives.
HPV’s ubiquity shouldn’t be taken for granted, says Dr. Jennifer Blake, Chief Executive Officer of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada. While most infections will clear up on their own, some high-risk HPV strains don’t. Persistent exposure to the higher-risk forms of HPV can develop into pre-cancerous lesions, and over time, even cancer of the cervix, vulva and vagina.
“Pre-cancers are real and cervical cancer is the second most common cause of cancer in Canadian women ages 20 to 44,” explains Blake. “It’s a really nasty cancer to get but it’s preventable.”
Here are five things you need to know about the vaccine and whether or not it’s right for you.
How it works
There are two HPV vaccines approved for use in Canada: Gardasil and Cervarix. Both offer protection from some of the nastiest cancer-causing strains of HPV, and both are delivered in three shots that span a six-month period. The vaccines don’t contain any of the live virus; rather they contain proteins that mimic its dome-like appearance on the skin. As Blake explains, once a person is injected with the serum, “the body’s immune system says, ‘Oh, this is an invader and if I see anything that looks like this I’m going after it.’” That aggressive response has staying power. Ten years after the vaccination was approved for use in Canada, there’s still no call for a booster.
The vaccine may help you clear an HPV infection faster
If you’re having sex with multiple partners, then the vaccine makes practical sense by offering additional protection against HPV-related STIs, says Blake. After age 30, a woman’s immune system is less likely to clear itself of an HPV infection quickly, she explains, so getting the vaccine may give the immune system a necessary boost to help rid the body of one of these high-risk infections. (Pap tests are still a pivotal player in cancer prevention, however, as no vaccine protects against all forms of cervical cancer.)
You can get it from your doctor—and you don’t have to be tested to get it
If you’re interested in getting the HPV vaccine, talk to your doctor, who can prescribe it for you (he or she may administer the vaccine, or else you’ll have to have it administered at a pharmacy that offers vaccine services.) You don’t have to be tested for HPV before you get it, or have any other testing in advance.
You may need to pay for it yourself
The vaccine isn’t free for women in this age group, sadly. The good news, though, is that it is covered by some private health insurers. If your insurer doesn’t cover it, or you don’t have insurance at all, then you’ll have to pay for it yourself. The series of shots can cost around $540.
It’s not perfect, but it’s something
The vaccine is ideally administered to youth before sexual activity has been initiated, but adult women who are sexually active may still benefit from the vaccine. “The data is showing that it’s not perfect, but that it is still giving protection to women,” says Blake. That protection may include a small but significant reduction in the number of women that present with one of the high-risk strains of HPV.