The most common sexually transmitted disease infects more than 42 percent of Americans between the ages 18 and 59. The disease is human papillomavirus, also known as HPV. While in many cases it goes away on its own and does not cause problems, experts call it a serious threat that can lead to cancer.
Following the news that cancers caused by HPV have spiked in the U.S. over the past 15 years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved using the HPV vaccine for men and women from ages 27- to 45-years-old. Cervical, penile and anal cancers are almost always correlated to HPV.
People in that age range should talk to their provider about getting the vaccine to protect themselves and partners, said Dr. Andrew Zerkle, an ob-gyn provider at Novant Health Bradford Clinic Obstetrics & Gynecology in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Previously, the vaccine was approved only for individuals between the ages of 9 and 26. Now by targeting a larger age range, the federal agency is hoping to see more adults get vaccinated to protect themselves from further exposure to possibly cancerous strains of HPV.
The virus usually is transmitted through direct contact of the genital skin or mucous membranes during intercourse, oral sex or kissing. But Gardasil, the HPV vaccine, protects against nine different strains that range from being low-risk (the ones that cause genital warts) to high risk (the ones that cause cancer).
Why it matters
Some 80 percent of sexually active individuals will be exposed to the virus at some point in their life and the number of men with HPV-related oral cancer has doubled, Zerkle said. “Older patients leaving relationships or who have multiple partners now have the opportunity to feel protected against the virus,” he said.
Plus, studies have shown that vaccines like Gardasil and Cervarix offer nearly 100 percent protection in the nine strains it targets.
What’s getting in the way?
Debunking HPV myths is something that Carmen Robinson, a family medicine physician at Novant Health Clemmons Family Medicine in Clemmons, North Carolina, does often.
“As providers, we’re always running a race against misinformation from the internet, word of mouth, anecdotal instances from a friend of a friend, and our job is to get the best information out there,” Robinson said.
Men shouldn’t relax their standards on getting vaccinated just because there isn’t an FDA-approved screening method yet. Women can check for this disease as part of their Pap test, and men can ask their providers to be visually screened for warts, as the American Sexual Health Association recommends.
Sometimes patients go without any symptoms after contracting the virus and find out later that they’ve carried the virus for years, putting partners at risk, Robinson said.
While providers recommend that every child be vaccinated, Robinson noted some parents have cultural or religious concerns.
“It’s another misconception out there that getting a vaccination for HPV could encourage sexual activity, but kissing transmits the disease, too, so it’s good to think of it as a preventive measure for your child,” Robinson said.
Cost and coverage
Gardasil is administered in three shots over six months. Each shot ranges from $130 to $200. Robinson tells patients to check their insurance policy to see if it’s covered, especially if you’re a patient in that expanded age range.
Nonetheless, providers like Robinson are hopeful that the expanded approval of the vaccine could truly make a difference in curbing the already enormous rates of HPV infections.