Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine

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The human papillomavirus (HPV) is an infection that spreads through sexual contact. The HPV vaccine protects against the most common strains of the virus.

Key points

  • In Canada, three vaccines can protect against HPV: Gardasil, Gardasil 9 and Cervarix.
  • The HPV vaccines protect against the most common strains: HPV 6, HPV 11, HPV 16 and HPV 18.
  • Studies show the HPV vaccines are safe.

What is human papillomavirus (HPV)?

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus that spreads through sexual contact. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in Canada. Most people do not know that they have HPV because they do not have any symptoms. Even without symptoms, a person can still pass on the virus to their partner. Certain types of HPV infection, if left untreated, can lead to cancer.

HPV is very common. About one in four Canadians under the age of 25 have HPV.

There are many different strains of HPV. The HPV vaccine protects against the four most common strains:

  • The strains HPV 6 and HPV 11 cause genital warts.
  • HPV 16 and HPV 18 are the leading cause of cancers of the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus that narrows into a canal and opens into the vagina. These strains can also cause cancers in the penis and anus as well as cancers of the head and neck.

In Canada, three vaccines can protect against HPV: Gardasil, Gardasil 9 and Cervarix.

How can the HPV vaccine help protect against HPV?

Gardasil and Gardasil 9 protect against the four most common types of HPV:

  • HPV 16 and HPV 18, which cause about 70 percent of all cancers of the cervix.
  • HPV 6 and HPV 11, which cause about 90 percent of all genital warts.

Gardasil-9 also protects against five additional high-risk strains of HPV (HPV 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58) that are associated with the development of cancer.

Gardasil and Gardasil 9 can be given to people who have a cervix between the ages of nine and 45 and people assigned male at birth between the ages of nine and 26. Gardasil-9 is available to adolescents through publicly funded school vaccine programs in every province and territory in Canada, though the exact grade level at which it is given is different across the country.

Cervarix protects against HPV 16 and HPV 18. It can be given to people who have a cervix between the ages of nine and 45.

All three vaccines require two doses given six months apart if you are between the ages of nine and 14. If you are 15 years of age or older, you will be given three doses over the course of six months.

Important facts about the HPV vaccine

There are many common myths about the HPV virus and vaccine. The correct information is provided below so that you have all the facts when considering your sexual health.

The HPV vaccine is not a substitute for regular checkups

The vaccine protects against some types of HPV that can potentially lead to cancers. Regular checkups with your doctor are still important because not all cancers will be prevented by the vaccine. As an adult, individuals who have a cervix will still be advised to be screened for cervical cancer, even after getting the HPV vaccine.

The vaccine cannot treat HPV infections or HPV-related disease

HPV vaccine helps prevent HPV-related infections or disease but will not treat an infection that has already happened. It is still important to get the vaccine, even if you have or suspect you have an HPV infection, because you may still benefit from the protection the vaccine provides against other strains of the virus.

There is currently no medical cure for the HPV virus

Once someone is infected it can take weeks to months before genital warts become apparent. Warts inside the vaginal or anal areas may not be obvious. Some home therapies and other treatments in the doctor's office can be used to treat warts, but none can completely eliminate the virus. Even if the warts disappear, the virus can remain and warts recur. When warts are treated it can take eight months or longer for them to disappear.

HPV vaccines do not protect against other sexually transmitted infections

The HPV vaccine protects against genital warts, which is one type of sexually transmitted infection (STI). It cannot protect against other types of STIs, such as HIV, chlamydia, or gonorrhea. It is important to practice safe sex even if you have received the HPV vaccine.

The HPV vaccine will not make you more promiscuous

There is no evidence that giving the vaccination will increase your sexual activity, and you will not lose your virginity because of getting vaccinated.

Is the vaccine protection long-lasting?

Studies show that people who have had the vaccine have good long-term protection against the HPV strains the vaccines were designed to prevent.

Are the HPV vaccines safe?

Studies show the HPV vaccines are safe. For all three vaccines, the most common side effects are soreness, redness or mild swelling at the site of injection. This is temporary. You will be observed for 15 minutes after receiving your vaccine to make sure you are not feeling dizzy or faint.

The only reason not to get the vaccine would be if you have had an allergic reaction to a previous dose of the vaccine or if you are pregnant.

The vaccines contain particles that mimic the HPV virus. They do not contain any actual virus and they cannot infect you with HPV. The vaccines also do not contain any antibiotics or preservatives, such as mercury or thimerosal. Cervarix contains a new additive called (ASO4). According to Health Canada, ASO4 is safe.

Last updated: May 10th 2022