In 2019, according to Cancer.net, around 13,170 women in the United States will be diagnosed with cervical cancer. About 4,250 deaths will occur this year. The 5-year survival rate for cervical is an overall 66%, but that depends on a lot of factors, including a woman’s ethnicity (white women have a higher survival rate than black women), age (younger women have a higher survival rate), and stage at which the cancer is detected (women detected in the later stages have a survival rate of only 19%). Dr. Kirtly Parker Jones tells the University of Utah’s The Scope that 1 in 125 women will contract cervical cancer in her lifetime. But with the pap smears and the HPV vaccine, cervical cancer is almost entirely preventable.
But there’s something just as important as getting your annual paper smear. According to Cancer.gov, with the HPV vaccine, cervical cancer chances decrease to nearly zero — they protect against almost 80-90% strains of the human papillomavirus, or HPV. Cancer.gov reports that HPV is a group of more than 200 viruses, 40 of which are spread through sexual contact, and about a dozen of them can cause cancer. These cancers include cervical, anal, oropharyngeal, penile, vulvar, and vaginal cancers. Two types of HPV can cause genital warts.
Basically, you get your kids vaccinated with the HPV vaccine — Cancer.gov says only the Gardasil 9 vaccine is available in the US — and the chances of contracting cervical cancer drop to almost nil.
So How Effective is the HPV Vaccine?
We’ve got a 2019 meta-study for that (a study that breaks down the results of other studies) cited by Cancer.org. The meta-study included girls-only HPV vaccine programs in 14 countries, with more than 60 million vaccinated people, and it showed strong evidence that the vaccine is effective.
Consider these stats. HPV 16 and 19 (different strains) infections dropped among girls by a whopping 83% and 66% among women 20-24 years old. Most importantly, the presence of precancerous lesions that can lead to cervical cancer dropped by 51% in girls 15-19 and 31% in women 20-24 nine years after the vaccination program began.
Cancer.org flat-out says that “widespread HPV vaccination has the potential to reduce cervical cancer incidence around the world by as much as 90%.”
So What About Kids Getting the HPV Vaccine?
According to the Mayo Clinic, the HPV vaccine is recommended for kids aged 11 or 12, but can be administered to children as young as nine. They should get the HPV vaccine before they start sexual activity. Karen, stop clutching your pearls. The Mayo Clinic’s careful to say that research has not linked the administration of the HPV vaccination to an earlier start of sexual activity. And once you get infected by HPV, the vaccine doesn’t work — it doesn’t prevent cancer from HPV strains you’re already infected with.
And yes, I said your son should get vaccinated, too. That’s because of something called “herd immunity.” If your son isn’t carrying around HPV strains that cause cancer, he isn’t going to pass them on to his sexual partners. He’s doing his part to protect the people he sleeps with. Think of it as another kind of safe sex — you wrap it up, you get tested regularly, you get the HPV vaccine. By the way, the HPV vaccine also protects him from genital warts and anal cancer, and possibly mouth and throat cancers, says the Mayo Clinic. So, bonus.
Remember, like the Mayo Clinic says, the vaccine does not make your kid more likely to have sex. It may, however, offer a chance to have an honest and open conversation about sex and sexuality. This may terrify some parents. Positive signs? Nearly 49% of all American adolescents, according to the CDC, have completed the recommended doses of the HPV vaccine. As the CDC director says, “This vaccine is the best way to protect our youth from developing cancers caused by HPV infection … Vaccination is the key to cervical cancer elimination.”
But that means 51% of American kids still haven’t gotten the recommended doses of their HPV vaccine. According to Science Daily, only 13% of the kids who are vaccinated have gotten their full round of vaccines by the time they’re 13, around when kids sometimes start to experiment. Moreover, 11 and 12-year-olds have a better immune response to the vaccine than older teens.
What about … Me?
According to the CDC, 80% of people will get an HPV infection of some kind during their lifetime. So there is no shame in having HPV. Let’s all say that together: there is no shame in having HPV. 80% of us have it. Some of us have the kind that makes genital warts, and that sucks. But most of us have a silent infection. We’re no better than the other people, we just got fucking lucky that you can’t see it. But that doesn’t make our type of HPV any less dangerous.
If you’re under 26 years-old, you should get three doses of the HPV vaccine.
And if you’re over 26 years-old? Yeah, you should still get the HPV vaccine if you weren’t vaccinated when you were a kid, the CDC says. Maybe. You should talk to your doctor about it. You’ve probably been exposed to it already: “HPV vaccination of people in this age range provides less benefit, as more have been already exposed to HPV.”
But here’s the thing: any time you have a new partner, you’re at risk of being exposed to a new HPV strain. So if you’re in a long term, monogamous relationship, the HPV vaccine probably isn’t the right thing for you. It’s not going to prevent cervical cancer. If you’re got the strain, you’ve got the strain, and if you haven’t gotten it yet, you’re not going to get it. But if you’re embarking on some sexual adventures … well, you probably want to get vaccinated. Your body will thank you.