Frequently Asked Questions
What is the HPV vaccine?
Human papillomaviruses (HPV) are the major cause of cervical cancer in women. Genital warts and some cancers in males are related to HPV, including most anal cancer, and some cancers of the penis, head and neck.
The HPV vaccine triggers the formation of antibodies to produce immunity and therefore protects the body from disease.
The HPV vaccine currently available in Australia is called Gardasil. This vaccine prevents infection with HPV types 16, 18, 6 and 11. HPV 16 and 18 are responsible for the majority (70% internationally; 80% in Australia) of cervical cancers. HPV 6 and 11 are responsible for 90% of genital warts. Having the vaccine will protect those who have never been exposed to these types of HPV.
Does the vaccine protect against all HPV types?
HPV are a group of over 100 different viruses. Some HPV types are more likely to lead to the development of cancer than others. At least 14 types of HPV have been found to cause cancer however the vaccine only protects against two out of the 14. 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.
Who is eligible for the vaccine?
The vaccine is most effective if given to girls and boys before the start of sexual activity and, therefore exposure to HPV.
Under the National Immunisation Program Gardasil is free for three groups:
- 12-13 year old girls in a school-based program, generally delivered in the first year of high school
- 12-13 year old boys in a school-based program, generally delivered in the first year of high school
- A catch-up group of 14-15 year old boys in a school-based program, delivered in Year 9 during 2013 and 2014.
For all other people, the cost of the vaccine is around $460; this does not include the cost of the visit to the GP who must prescribe the vaccine.
How is the vaccine administered?
GPs will administer the vaccine in three injections in the upper arm or thigh over a six-month period.
Will ‘boosters’ be required, and if so, how often?
Since the vaccine is 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 will the vaccine cost?
Gardasil is free for three groups under the National Immunisation Program:
- 12-13 year old girls in a school-based program, generally delivered in the first year of high school.
- 12-13 year old boys in a school-based program, generally delivered in the first year of high school.
- A catch-up group of 14-15 year old boys in a school-based program, delivered in Year 9 between 2013 and 2014.
- For all other people, the cost of the vaccine is around $460; this does not include the cost of the visit to the GP who must prescribe the vaccine.
I can’t afford 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 HPV vaccine will be offered to 12-13 year old boys from 2013 as part of the National Vaccination Program. Genital warts and some cancers in males are related to HPV, including most anal cancer, and some cancers of the penis, head and neck.
I am sexually active. Will the vaccine benefit me?
You will not be protected if you have already have been infected with the HPV types, covered by the vaccine, prior to vaccination. The Cancer Council NSW recommends regular Pap tests every two years for all women who have ever had sex. For these women, Pap tests are still the best protection against cervical cancer.
How was the vaccine discovered?
The HPV vaccine is an Australian discovery, by Professor Ian Frazer from the University of Queensland’s Centre for Immunology and Cancer Research (CICR).
For 20 years, Professor Frazer has been researching the link between papilloma viruses and cancer, seeking ways to treat these viruses in order to reduce the incidence of 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% 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 the HPV vaccine is way below the level or time period showing toxic effect in animal studies.
Medical experts suggest that the HPV vaccine actually protects fertility indirectly by preventing the need for treatments for cervical cancer, which can lead to cervical problems that then cause infertility.
What is HPV?
HPV is the human papillomavirus. Most Pap test abnormalities are caused by chronic infection with HPV. This virus is spread from person to person through genital skin contact. It is so common that it could be considered a normal part of being sexually active. Four out of five women will have HPV at some time in their lives.
Over 100 types of HPV have been identified, of which around 40 affect the genital area. Some of these types (most commonly types 6 and 11) cause genital warts. However most infection is completely silent or asymptomatic. At least 14 types (most commonly types 16 and 18) have been associated with cancer of the cervix.
How is HPV transmitted?
HPV infects the skin, often causing irregular cell growth or warts. Genital skin-to-skin contact with another individual is believed to be the most common route of transmission. Most sexually active people get at least one HPV infection in their life, usually without ever knowing it. It is very difficult to determine whether a partner who has been sexually active in the past is currently infected. Transmission of the virus is possible even when there are no visible signs of infection. Even when genital warts are removed or destroyed, HPV often persists in surrounding skin. Non-sexual transmission of HPV has been reported. A mother with HPV can pass the infection to her child during birth, which would be detected in the linings of the nose and mouth of the child.
Who is at risk of getting HPV?
Most people will have HPV at some time in their life and never know it. Both men and women are commonly infected with HPV, and pass it on without knowing it. The body’s immune system usually clears the virus in around 12 months.
What is the link between HPV and cervical cancer?
Although HPV is very common, most women with HPV will not develop cervical cancer. However, when certain HPV infections (especially types 16 and 18) take longer than usual to clear from the body, there is an increased risk of cervical cancer. When cervical cancer occurs, HPV is found in almost all cases.
In 2006, we estimate there will be approximately 240 new cases and around 75 deaths attributable to cervical cancer in NSW. Worldwide, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women; and it is estimated to result in over 470,000 new cases and cause 233,000 deaths per year, due to the lack of screening programs in developing countries.
Should women still have regular Pap tests?
Absolutely. Since no vaccine is 100% 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.
How effective are Pap tests in cervical cancer prevention?
Regular Pap tests every two years can reduce the incidence of cervical cancer by up to 90% in Australia, and save 1200 Australian women dying from the disease each year.