Menu

Frequently asked questions on HPV vaccination

This page has a selection of different questions that Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust has received about the HPV vaccine. The answers have been reviewed by Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust's medical advisers.

What is HPV and why should girls be vaccinated for it? 
My boyfriend wears a condom; won't this protect me from the HPV virus?
Is HPV the same virus that causes genital warts?
Will the vaccine protect against genital warts? 
When will be the best time to be vaccinated? 
How long will the protection last for? 
Will being vaccinated prevent all cases of cervical cancer?
Do I still need to attend my cervical screening when I am invited I've already had the vaccine? 
What are the vaccines and where can I get them? 
What are the side effects of the vaccine? 
What about men, can they have the vaccine?
If HPV is so common, and it affects nearly all of us, why don't more women get cervical cancer?
Can these vaccines help if you already have a cervical screening result or cervical cancer?
If I have been diagnosed with HPV should I get the vaccination? 

If I have been treated for abnormal cells / cervical cancer, should I now get vaccinated? 
What do you think is the most important message to get across about HPV vaccines? 

What is HPV and why should girls be vaccinated against it?
HPV is an extremely common virus. There are over 100 identified types of HPV. Some types of HPV can cause changes in the cells of the cervix, creating abnormalities. Once these abnormalities become severe they may develop into cancer.

Anybody who has ever been sexually active is at risk of contracting HPV. Genital HPV is transmitted primarily by genital-to-genital skin contact, and vaginal, and oral sex. The time from exposure to the virus to the development of warts or cervical disease is highly variable and the virus can remain dormant in some people for long periods of time. Often it is not possible to determine exactly when or from whom the infection originated. HPV is classified as a sexually transmitted virus. It is more common in young, sexually active people, with the peak prevalence in women usually occurring between the ages of 16 and 25. There is more information on HPV and its transmission available here.

Girls who are offered the HPV vaccine have an opportunity to protect themselves from two high-risk types of HPV that cause at least 70% of all cervical cancers.

My boyfriend wears a condom; won't this protect me from the HPV virus?
Practising safe sex through the use of condoms can help reduce the risk of being infected with HPV, but it will not completely eradicate the risk as HPV lives on the skin in and around the whole genital area [1]. Genital HPV in men affects the skin of the penis, scrotum, anus and rectum [2]. In women, it affects the vulva (area outside the vagina), the linings of the vagina, cervix and rectum. This means HPV can be transmitted via any genital-to-genital skin contact and, therefore, condoms will not protect you completely.

Is HPV the same virus that causes genital warts?
Yes. However, there are about 100 types of HPV, divided into those that are high risk and low risk for cervical cancer. The most common types that cause cervical cancer are high-risk HPV types 16 and 18. The low-risk types do not actually cause cervical cancer, but can cause genital warts. The two most common low-risk types are HPV 6 and 11, which cause 90% of genital warts.

Cervical cancer and genital warts are caused by different types of HPV, so having genital warts does not mean that you are more likely to get cancer.

Will the vaccine protect against genital warts?
Yes. The current vaccine used in the UK is called Gardasil and it protects against four HPV types: the two most common HPV types that cause cervical cancer (HPV types 16 and 18), as well as the two most common HPV types that cause genital warts (HPV types 6 and 11). The other currently licensed vaccine, called Cervarix, is designed to protect against high-risk HPV types 16 and 18 but not genital warts.

When will be the best time to be vaccinated?
The best time for a girl to be vaccinated is before she begins puberty as this is when her immune system is at its strongest, which is when the vaccine works best. This is why girls are routinely vaccinated at the ages of 11–13 in Scotland and 12–13 in the rest of the UK.

How long will the protection last for?
HPV vaccination has been shown to prevent infection and pre-cancer for at least 10 years, but modelling suggests it will last longer. Ongoing studies will show how much longer women will be protected for and whether booster shots will be required.

Will being vaccinated prevent all cases of cervical cancer?
Gardasil and Cervarix protect against the two most common HPV types that cause cancer, types 16 and 18. It has been estimated that this will prevent about 70% of cervical cancers.

Do I still need to attend my cervical screening when I am invited I've already had the vaccine?
Yes. It is very important that you still attend regular screening even if you have been vaccinated so that abnormalities caused by HPV types other than 16 and 18 may be detected. Screening also identifies small cell cancer of the cervix, which the HPV vaccine will not protect against.

What are the vaccines and where can I get them?
Two HPV vaccines have been developed. Gardasil, developed by Sanofi Pasteur MSD, received its European license in September 2006. The other vaccine, Cervarix, developed by Glaxo Smith Kline, received its European license in September 2007 and was the chosen vaccine for the HPV vaccination programme taking place in schools and for teenage girls up to their 18th birthday until summer 2012. However, since autumn 2012 Gardasil has been the chosen vaccine used in the UK vaccination programme. A new vaccine, Gardasil 9, is likely to be licensed later in 2015.

For more information about the vaccination programme for teenage girls click on the relevant link below:

What are the side effects of the vaccine?
Thousands of girls and women of different ages took part in the clinical trials for the HPV vaccines. These trials found that the vaccine offers 98% protection against infection with the high-risk types of HPV in girls who haven't previously been infected with the virus. Side effects from both vaccines are usually mild.

Side effects for the Gardasil HPV vaccine include [3]:

  • Very common side effects (side effects that may occur in more than one per ten doses of vaccine) reported by girls who have received the vaccine are:
    • Fainting (vaccinated girls are advised to sit quietly for 15 minutes after the injection) [4]
    • Injection site problems such as redness, bruising, itching, swelling, pain or cellulitis
    • Headaches
  • Common side effects (side effects that may occur in less than one per ten doses of the vaccine, but in more than one per 100):
    • Fever
    • Nausea (feeling sick)
    • Painful arms, hands, legs or feet
  • Rare side effects (side effects that may occur in less than one per 100 does of the vaccine):
    • More than one in 10,000 people who have the Gardasil HPV vaccine experience an itchy red rash (urticaria)
    • Fewer than one in 10,000 people who have the Gardasil HPV vaccine experience restriction of the airways and difficult breathing (brochospasm)

For information on side effects for the Gardasil HPV vaccine, please see the NHS choices website.

What about men, can they have the vaccine?
Cancers caused by HPV in men include oral, anal and penile cancer, though fortunately these are quite rare. Currently, the HPV vaccination programme does not cover boys. However, there has recently been a lot of debate as to whether men who have sex with men (MSM) should be vaccinated, as they are not protected by female-only vaccination. Herd protection means that people who are immunised against a condition (in this case, girls who have had the HPV vaccine) help to protects the other people who are not immunised (in this case, boys who have not had the vaccine). The protection that men who have sex with vaccinated women receive is due to the fact that vaccination prevents infection so there is no virus being transmitted by vaccinated women to their partners. As MSM do not have sexual contact with immunised women they do not gain protection against HPV. The JCVI is currently looking at evidence to decide if it would be cost-effective to immunise MSMs aged 16–40 [5].

If HPV is so common, and it affects nearly all of us, why don't more women get cervical cancer?
The majority of women clear the infection through their immune systems, but for those who do not regular cervical screening tests can pick up abnormalities in cervical cells before a cancer develops. These abnormal cells can then be removed and, in the majority of cases, this is highly successful. In very few women, changes occur more rapidly, in the interval between cervical screening or, occasionally, the changes are not detected by a cervical screening test.

Can these vaccines help if you already have a cervical screening result or cervical cancer?
At the present time, there is no vaccine that can treat women after they have been affected.

If I have been diagnosed with HPV should I get the vaccination?
The vaccine prevents infection by other types of HPV and prevents reinfection by the same type, but does not clear the infection. Therefore, if you have been diagnosed with HPV it could still be beneficial for you to get vaccinated, even though it will not help you clear that particular infection.

If I have been treated for abnormal cells/cervical cancer, should I now get vaccinated?
Current evidence suggests that women who have been treated for CIN3 and have been vaccinated had a much lower risk of new infections and recurrence [6]; therefore, while more research is needed into this topic, it could be beneficial for you to receive vaccination after being treated for abnormal cells/cervical cancer.

What do you think is the most important message to get across about HPV vaccines?
HPV vaccines have the potential to reduce the number of cases of cervical cancer (and other HPV-associated cancers) and the number of women who have to be treated because of abnormal cervical cells in generations to come. For women who are already part of the screening programme, the best protection against cervical cancer is to continue going for regular cervical screenings. It is essential that all girls who are vaccinated also attend cervical screening when invited.


References

  1. Winter RL et al., 2003. Genital human papillomavirus infection: incidence and risk factors in a cohort of female university students. American Journal of Epidemiology 157 (3), 218–226.
  2. Giulano AR et al., 2008. Epidemiology of human papillomavirus infection in men, cancers other than cervical and benign conditions. Vaccine 26 (10), K17–K28.
  3. NHS Choices, 2014. HPV vaccine side-effects. http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaccinations/pages/hpv-vaccine-cervarix-gardasil-side-effects.aspx. Accessed: 19.05.2015
  4. FDA, 2015. Gardasil® package insert. http://www.fda.gov/downloads/BiologicsBloodVaccines/Vaccines/ApprovedProducts/UCM111263.pdf. Accessed: 19.05.2015.
  5. Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, 2014. JCVI interim position statement on HPV vaccination of men who have sex with men (MSM). https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/373531/JCVI_interim_statement_HPV_vacc.pdf. Accessed: 19.05.2015.
  6. Joura EA et al., 2012. Effect of the human papillomavirus (HPV) quadrivalent vaccine in a subgroup of women with cervical and vulvar disease: retrospective pooled analysis of trial. British Medical Journal 344, e1401. 
Date last updated: 
21 May 2015
Date due for review: 
21 May 2017