HPV is a virus that has been linked to many different types of cancer. The good news is there are vaccines available to protect against HPV and reduce your cancer risk.

The cancer and virus connection

Almost all cervical cancers are linked to the human papillomavirus, or HPV. The virus is also linked to at least five other types of cancer including vulvar, vaginal, penile and anal cancers, as well as oropharyngeal cancer, a cancer of the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils. A person who is infected with HPV may not develop cancer for many years after becoming infected and it is impossible to know who will get cancer from HPV.

HPV is a very common virus; nearly 80 million people (about one in four) are currently infected in the United States. It is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get one of the many types of the virus at some point. HPV is spread through vaginal, anal or oral sex and you can contract it from an infected person who has no symptoms.

Cancer prevention

Fortunately, a vaccine exists to protect against HPV-related cancers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends all boys and girls 11-12 years old get two doses of the HPV vaccine to protect against cancers caused by HPV. The second dose should be given 6-12 months after the first dose. Teens and young adults who start the series later, at age 15 or older, will need three doses of the HPV vaccine.

The HPV vaccine offers the best protection to girls and boys who complete the series and have time to develop an immune response before they become sexually active.

The HPV vaccine is now available for young women and men through age 26. It is important that women who have been vaccinated continue to have regular Pap tests to screen for cervical cancer.

If your health insurance does not cover the cost of the HPV vaccine, there are assistance programs available. Most HPV vaccines are covered by the Vaccines for Children (VFC) Program, a federally-funded program that helps provide vaccines to children (age 18 or younger) whose parents or guardians may not be able to afford them. Some HPV manufacturers also offer patient assistance programs to cover vaccine costs for adults ages 19 to 26.

The risk factors:

You may be at increased risk for HPV infection if you:

  • Have had multiple sexual partners
  • Are a woman who has had unprotected sex with uncircumcised men
  • Are a man who is uncircumcised
  • Are a man who has sex with men

Regardless of whether you are at increased risk or average risk for HPV infection,all young men and women of recommended age need to be vaccinated. Talk to your health care provider about getting vaccinated.

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