Vaccination changes mean full protection against HPV has never been easier

Vaccination changes mean full protection against HPV has never been easier image

Home » Vaccination changes mean full protection against HPV has never been easier

It’s now easier than ever for most young people to get vaccinated against a common infection which can cause cancers in both men and women, following changes to the human papillomavirus (HPV) immunisation programme which take effect today (Friday 01 September).

From today, the number of doses required for most young people to be considered fully vaccinated is reduced from two to one, meaning that no follow-up immunisation is required.  Until now, full protection for most young people was thought to be provided by two injections.  The vaccine is most commonly offered to girls and boys aged 12 to 13 (usually in Year 8), but is also offered to young adults who have not yet been vaccinated.

The vaccine is also recommended for gay and bisexual men, and other men who have sex with men, up to the age of 45.

The HPV vaccine used in England protects against nine types of HPV, including some of the highest risk types which cause the majority of cervical cancers, most anal cancers and some genital, head and neck cancers.

Dr Sarah Whiteman, chief medical director at Bedfordshire, Luton and Milton Keynes Integrated Care Board, said:

“I’m pleased that it’s now so much easier for young people to be vaccinated against HPV.  I’d urge parents of both girls and boys to take up the offer of a vaccination when it comes your way.

“The HPV jab doesn’t only protect your son or daughter, but their future partner too.  We offer this in the early teenage years, which is often long before they might come into contact with HPV, but it’s never too soon to offer them the immunity which vaccination provides.  Studies have shown that the vaccine protects against HPV infection for at least 10 years, although experts expect it to last much longer, well into adulthood.

“If you’re a young adult who missed out on a vaccination when you were younger, it’s not too late.  You remain eligible for an HPV vaccination until your 25th birthday (for girls born after 1 September 1991 and boys born after 1 September 2006).

“It is estimated that the HPV vaccine will prevent up to 90% of cervical cancer cases.  However, as the HPV vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV that can cause cervical cancers, it is important that women who have received the HPV vaccine still come forward for their cervical screening which uses a test to check for all types of high-risk HPV – it is estimated to help save 5,000 lives each year.”

Some frequently asked questions

  • What is HPV?

HPV refers to a group of very common viruses, called the human papillomavirus, which live in the skin in and around the genital area.  HPV infections can happen in girls and boys – and they mainly affect the mouth, throat or genital area.  There are more than 100 types of HPV: most are harmless and clear on their own.  Some types, however, are considered ‘high-risk’ because they are linked to the development of cancers, including cervical cancer, cancers of the head and neck, and cancers of the anus and genital areas.  Other types can cause warts and verrucas.

  • How is HPV spread?

HPV infection is very common.  Most people will get an HPV infection at some point in their lives – 70% of unvaccinated people will get it. HPV is easy to catch and does not usually cause any symptoms.  It can be passed on by any skin to skin contact of the genital area, including vaginal, anal or oral sex or by sharing sex toys.

Using a condom does not provide complete protection against HPV as HPV lives on the skin in and around the genital area.  The best level of immunity against HPV is offered by getting the HPV vaccine.  The HPV vaccination does not protect against other infections spread during sex, such as chlamydia, and it will not prevent pregnancy, so it’s still very important to practice safe sex.

  • Why should I get the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine helps protect girls and boys against some of the highest risk types of HPV that can lead to cancers, including cervical cancer, cancers of the head and neck, and cancers of the anus and genital areas.  It also helps protect against genital warts.

Over 280 million people worldwide have received the HPV vaccine, including over 10 million in the UK.

Studies have shown the vaccine to be very effective at preventing HPV infections and it is expected that the vaccine will save hundreds of lives every year in the UK.  Since its introduction, cases of HPV infection and genital warts have decreased in the UK.  As it can take many years after HPV infection for cancers such as cervical cancer to develop, it will take some time to find out the overall benefits of the programme.  However, recent studies into cervical cancers show positive signs.

A recent Scottish study found an 89% reduction in severe cervical abnormalities in vaccinated women.  Also, a study published in The Lancet in 2021 found that cervical cancer rates in England were 87% lower in young women who had been eligible for HPV vaccination when they were aged 12 to 13 years, compared to similar young women born earlier who were not eligible.

Overall, the study estimated that the HPV programme had prevented about 450 cancers and 17,200 pre-cancers up to mid-2019.

  • Why do children need to get the HPV vaccine at such a young age?

The HPV vaccine works best if girls and boys are given the vaccine before they come into contact with HPV.  As HPV is most commonly spread during vaginal and anal sex and close skin to skin contact, in order to give the best protection, the vaccine should be given before someone is sexually active. This means that they will be protected against HPV throughout their teenage years and into their adult life. If someone is already sexually active, they should still get the HPV vaccine.

  • What vaccine will I receive, is it safe and how is it given?

The vaccine Gardasil 9 (by Merck) is currently used in the NHS vaccine programme, which protects against nine types of HPV which cause most cervical, anal, genital and head and neck cancers.  The HPV vaccine has been used worldwide for many years in countries such as Australia, Canada, the UK, the US and most of western Europe.

In order for a vaccine to be licensed for use in the UK, it has to be proven to be safe and effective, and shown to have benefits that outweigh any risks.  This is proven through clinical trials.  Clinical trials and safety data continue to show that Gardasil 9 is very safe and effective.

The vaccine is given as an injection in the upper arm.  As with all medicine and vaccines, there are some mild possible side-effects associated with the HPV vaccination such a pain, swelling and redness at the site of injection and a mild headache.

  • Is there anybody who should not have the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine should not be given to anyone who has had a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to a previous dose of the HPV vaccine or any of its ingredients, or who is known to be pregnant.  HPV vaccination should be delayed for people who are unwell and have a high temperature or are feeling hot and shivery.  This is to avoid confusing the symptoms of the illness with the response to the vaccine.  There’s no reason to delay vaccination for a mild illness, such as the common cold.

  • Can I get the HPV vaccine? If so, where do I get it and how many doses do I need?

Eligibility is listed in the table below.

Eligible groupNumber of doses required from 1 September 2023Where to get the vaccine
Children aged 12-13 (in Year 8 in academic year 2023/24)OneIn schools or community clinics
Young people, aged up to 25, who have not received any dose of the HPV vaccine (for girls born after 1 September 1991 and boys born after 1 September 2006)OneIn schools, community clinics or GP practices
Gay and bisexual men and men who have sex with men aged under 25OneSexual health clinics
Gay and bisexual men and men who have sex with men aged 25-45TwoSexual health clinics
Those who are living with HIV or known to be immunocompromised at the time of vaccinationThreeSexual health clinics
  • If I have missed my HPV vaccine, what do I need to do to catch up?

If you missed your HPV vaccine at school, you should try to catch up as soon as possible.  Contact your school nurse, school immunisation team or GP practice to arrange an appointment.  GP practices can offer missed HPV doses from the age of 14.  You remain eligible up until your 25th birthday (for girls born after 1 September 1991 and boys born after 1 September 2006).

  • Do I need to have parental consent to get the HPV vaccine?

Young people aged 15 years and under will be asked for their parent or guardian to give consent for them to receive the HPV vaccine.  They will be provided with information on the HPV vaccine to help them in their decision.  If the form is not returned, the child may be given the opportunity on the day to self-consent if they are deemed competent to do so.  If a written parental refusal of consent is returned, the child will not be vaccinated.

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