The HPV vaccine first hit the market in 2006, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the vaccine for adolescents—especially girls—until age 26. HPV causes an annual average of 33,700 cancers, according to the CDC, and the vaccine has proved to be effective at preventing most of these cancers from developing.
But what about the people who were older than 26 after the vaccine was released? Even for those who were eligible at the time, HPV vaccination took a while to become “the norm,” and many young adults became ineligible before knowing the benefits of getting the HPV vaccine.
Luckily, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved updated guidelines of the HPV vaccine, and many people who previously missed their opportunity might have another chance.
What Is the HPV Vaccine?
HPV, or the human papillomavirus, is actually a collection of around 200 related viruses. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the country, although only around 40 of the viruses are spread by direct sexual contact.
Some HPV infections go away on their own, but others are long-lasting and can develop into certain cancers, particularly cervical cancer. Other types of HPV-causing cancers include anal, penile, vulvar, oropharyngeal (the back of the mouth), and vaginal cancers.
Like other vaccines, the HPV vaccine contains “virus-like particles” that mimic the virus (but do not contain the virus’s DNA and thus do not cause infection). The vaccine helps the body produce antibodies, so that if HPV were later introduced to the body, the antibodies would bind to the virus and prevent it from infecting healthy cells. (Here are vaccine myths you can safely ignore.)
And it works. The HPV vaccine has been shown to give virtually 100 percent protection against two high-risk HPVs, known as types 16 and 18. These two viruses cause 70 percent of cervical cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute. (In total, the vaccine protects against 9 HPV types.)
HPV vaccination rates were slow at first, due to a stigma of HPV being associated with sexual contact. However, doctors, researchers, and politicians fought to promote the vaccine and its effectiveness: It could prevent over 90 percent of these HPV-causing cancers from ever developing, according to the CDC. (Check out this senator’s fight to promote the HPV vaccine.)
Who Can Get the HPV Vaccine Now?
If you weren’t able to get the HPV vaccine by age 26, it’s not too late. On October 5, 2018, the FDA approved new guidelines for the HPV vaccine, stating it is now available for people up to age 45.
The change occurred thanks to a study that followed about 3,200 women between the ages of 27 and 45. The women received the vaccination after age 26 (the original cutoff point for the HPV vaccine). The vaccine proved to be almost 90 percent effective in preventing things like persistent HPV infection, genital warts, and cancer development, according to the FDA press release.
So if you missed the boat before, and you’re 45 or younger, you might still have a chance to get the HPV vaccine. That said, just because the deadline is age 45 doesn’t mean you should put it off until then. The recommended age to get the vaccine is age 11 or 12, which ensures adolescents are fully protected before they’re sexually active.
Whether or not you’ve received the HPV vaccine, it’s still important to get regular screenings for cervical cancer and other vaginal abnormalities, as well as practice safe sex to prevent a variety of sexually transmitted infections.