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Human papillomavirus vaccine

The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine prevents infection with some types of HPV. A vaccine triggers the formation of antibodies to produce immunity and therefore protects the body from disease. Human papillomaviruses are the major cause of cervical cancer.

The HPV vaccines currently available in Australia are called Gardasil and Cervarix. Gardasil protects against four types of HPV: 16, 18, 6 and 11. Cervarix protects against two types of HPV, 16 and 18. This vaccine prevents infection with HPV types 16, 18, 6 and 11. HPV 16 and 18 are responsible for the majority (70 per cent internationally; 80 per cent in Australia) of cervical cancers. HPV 6 and 11 are responsible for 90 per cent of genital warts.

Having a vaccine will protect those who have never been exposed to these types of HPV. The vaccines are most effective when given to young women before they become sexually active.

Does the vaccine protect against all HPV types?

HPV is a group of over 100 different viruses. Some HPV types are more likely to lead to the development of cancer than others. At least 15 types of HPV have been found to cause cancer however the vaccine only protects against two out of the 15. Therefore, Pap tests are still critically important. Women between the ages of 18–70 years who have ever had sex need to have a Pap test every two years whether or not they have been vaccinated.

How is the vaccine administered?

GPs administer the vaccines in three dose schedules at 0, 2 and 6 months for Gardasil and 0, 1, and 6 months for Cervarix.

Will ‘boosters’ be required, and if so, how often?

Since both vaccines are new, more studies need to be done. It is not yet clear if or when boosters will be needed.

Is the vaccine safe?

Tests of the vaccine showed only minor problems. Some people had a slight fever; others had redness or irritation of their skin at the site of where the vaccine was administered.

How much does the vaccine cost?

A HPV vaccine is free in Australia for girls aged between 12 and 13 under the National HPV Vaccination Program. Girls are vaccinated with parental consent in a school-based program, usually in the first year of high school. For more information, call the Immunise Australia Program’s information line on 1800 671 811.

For all other people, the cost a course of vaccine is around $460; this does not include the cost of the visit to the GP who must prescribe the vaccine.

Are Pap tests still a good option?

Pap tests are still critically important. Women between the ages of 18–70 years who have ever had sex need to have a Pap test every two years whether or not they have been vaccinated.

Should I have my son vaccinated?

The vaccines are not routinely recommended for males at this time in Australia.

I am sexually active. Will the vaccine benefit me?

Women will not be protected if they already have been infected with the HPV types covered by the vaccine, prior to vaccination. For these women, Pap tests are still the best protection against cervical cancer.

What trials have been undertaken to test the vaccine?

Clinical trials across Australia and in the US have shown the vaccine to be close to 100 per cent effective against HPV types 16 and 18.

Myth busting: Can the HPV vaccine lead to infertility?

The rumour that the HPV vaccine can lead to infertility has come about as a result of findings of animal studies investigating a chemical stabiliser used in the vaccine called polysorbate 80. In these studies scientists expose the animals (usually mice or rats) to high levels of polysorbate 80 over prolonged periods (most often daily or several times a week for months) to see how their bodies react. The results of studies clearly show that the three intermittent doses of the very low level of polysorbate 80 in HPV vaccines is way below the level or time period showing toxic effect in animal studies.

Medical experts suggest that HPV vaccines actually protect fertility indirectly by preventing the need for treatments for cervical cancer, which can lead to cervical problems that then cause infertility.

Should women still have regular Pap tests?

Absolutely. Since no vaccine is 100 per cent effective and this vaccine won’t provide protection against the HPV types not in the vaccine, or against existing HPV infections, regular Pap tests remain critically important to detect abnormal cell changes in the cervix.