You may have heard that the age limit for getting the HPV vaccine was increased to 45, but what does that really mean if you’re over the previous ceiling of age 26? After all, when the vaccine was first introduced, the idea was to offer protection against key strains of the virus before people became sexually active. The answer is simple—it can still be a lifesaver. And the reason is that the vaccine can prevent reinfection as well as new infections.
The CDC estimates that 80 million Americans carry one or more strains of HPV (human papilloma virus), a dangerous family of viruses that can cause not only genital warts but also cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers in women…penile cancer in men…and throat cancer in both sexes. Research shows that, unlike with most other viruses, contracting one strain of HPV may not confer immunity—not only can a person still be infected by other HPV strains (there are more than 100 in all), but also reinfected by the same initial strain.
While it’s ideal to be vaccinated during the preteen years, people up to age 45 still will benefit from the vaccine’s primary goal—protection against the most dangerous strains of the HPV responsible for the cancers mentioned above.
HOW THE AGE CHANGE CAME ABOUT
The FDA extended its approval of the Gardasil 9 vaccine up to age 45 for both sexes after a groundbreaking study of more than 3,000 women, ages 27 to 47, for whom Gardasil was found to be 88% effective in preventing HPV infection, genital warts, vulvar and vaginal precancers, cervical precancers and cervical cancers related to the virus. Because men have been shown to have the same immune response as women, experts anticipate that the vaccine will also offer men in this age group protections against genital warts and cancer. This is especially important considering the recent steep rise in HPV-related cancers in men.
Why this should matter to you: HPV is the most prevalent sexually transmitted disease in the US—the CDC states that nearly all men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point within their sexually active lifetimes. If you have new sexual partners or if there’s any chance that you and your current partner aren’t completely monogamous, you’re at risk of being infected with one or more HPV strains and should consider getting vaccinated. Note that teens age 15 and older and adults need a total of three shots unlike younger teens, who need only two.
For practical purposes, people over age 26 may not be able have the vaccine covered by insurance until 2019. Despite FDA approval, clinicians and insurance companies need to wait for recommendations from the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. The committee is expected to vote on the vaccine at its February 2019 meeting.
About the vaccine: There are no serious or long-lasting side effects of the vaccine. As with any shot, you might have soreness, swelling and/or redness at the injection site. Some people have reported getting a headache soon afterward.
Also, there is more to learn about the vaccine, including how long its protection lasts.
Important: Even if vaccinated, women still need regular tests to identify cervical cell changes. The vaccine does not replace these screening measures.