Saturday 17 February 2018

HPV vaccine: Is it necessary and safe for your daughter?

Ask the GP

HPV vaccine. Photo: PA
HPV vaccine. Photo: PA

Nina Byrnes

Our GP on how the HPV vaccination saves lives

Q. My daughter has just started first year. We received a letter home advising vaccination against the HPV virus. Is this vaccination necessary and safe?

Dr Nina replies: Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is a group of viruses that can cause infection in the throat, anus, cervix, vagina and external genitalia. It is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections we know and it is estimated that most people come in contact with this virus within 18 months of commencing sexual activity. There are over 100 different types of HPV. Most are harmless but certain types are known to be associated with cancers of the area they infect. Types 16 and 18 are considered high risk and are known to increase the risk of cancer of the cervix and throat. Types 6 and 11 are low risk and are associated with the development of warts.

Read more: ‘I had to leave my life in Abu Dhabi and fly home after I was diagnosed with cervical cancer at 24’

Of those infected, 90pc will clear the virus within two years. Most won't even be aware that they ever had it. Smoking increases the risk of prolonged infection.

Those who are infected with the virus can pass it on even if they have no symptoms. The virus is spread through direct contact with the infected area, usually through skin-to-skin contact, kissing or oral, anal or genital sexual contact. You can have the HPV virus for years and be unaware of this. It isn't unusual for someone to develop changes or warts years after being in touch with the virus. This can cause upset in a relationship as some are concerned there has been a recent infidelity. This isn't necessarily the case.

Read more: 'The C-word had become a dinner table discussion for us' - This is what happened me after my smear test

The only way the virus can be diagnosed is through direct testing or upon the development of genital warts. Women who are found to have HPV with abnormal smears are at a higher risk of developing cancer of the cervix and do need closer screening.

Until recently, the only way to prevent cervical cancer was through regular cervical screening. A national screening programme, introduced in 2008, invites all women aged 25 to 60 to attend for smears every three years from the age of 25 to 45, and every five years from 45 to 60. Since 2010 we also can give two vaccines, which can prevent infection with certain strains of the HPV virus, which will further reduce the incidence of cervical cancer in Ireland.

The vaccine is currently offered to girls in first year in secondary school. It is most effective when given to those who are not yet sexually active which is why this age group have been selected. The vaccine can prevent seven out of 10 cases of cervical cancer.

There have been media reports of adverse events related to vaccination, but more than 80 million doses of the HPV vaccine have been given in the USA alone. There is no scientific evidence that backs up the claim that the vaccine is anything but safe and well tolerated. The most common side effect is soreness at the injection site, which is usually mild and short lived.

Read more: What happens when you get a smear test? A step-by-step guide to cervical screening

Other side effects such as fainting and dizziness are more likely due to stress and are not side effects of the vaccine itself.

There aren't many cancers that we can vaccinate against. Cancers of the throat, cervix, anus and genitalia are still a cause of death in our country. In this instance, it is certainly true that vaccination saves lives.

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