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Myths and facts about HPV and the vaccine

MYTH: HPV only affects females.

FACT: Both males and females can get HPV. It's very common – 4 out of 5 people have HPV at some point in their lives.

Although cervical cancer is the most common type of cancer caused by HPV, persistent infection is also known to cause penile and anal cancers affecting men.

The HPV vaccine protects against 70% of cervical cancers, however it also provides protection against most of the genital cancers in men caused by HPV infection. Additionally, the vaccine protects against 90% of genital warts in both women and men.

As with any vaccine, the HPV vaccine may not fully protect everyone who is vaccinated and does not protect against all HPV types. 

MYTH: The vaccine wasn't properly tested and hasn't been proven to prevent HPV-related cancers.

FACT: In initial clinical trials, the vaccine was given to 20,000 women aged 16–26 years in 33 countries including Australia, before it was approved for widespread use.

These trials showed the vaccine is almost 100 per cent effective in preventing abnormalities in cells in the cervix caused by high-risk HPV types 16 and 18. These abnormalities are a proven pre-cursor to cervical cancer.

Further clinical trials involving more than 4,000 males aged 16–26 years from 18 countries showed the vaccine was 90 per cent effective in preventing genital warts and abnormalities associated with penile cancer, and 78 per cent effective in preventing anal disease, caused by HPV types 6, 11, 16 and 18.

MYTH: I'm not sexually active yet, so I don't need the vaccine.

FACT: You may not be thinking about being sexually active yet, however the vaccine works best if it is given before exposure to HPV – that is, before sexual activity commences.

The vaccine also works best when given at a younger age. Research shows that younger people create more antibodies to the vaccine than those aged in their late teens. This means they are better protected if they are exposed to HPV in the future.

MYTH: Only people who have multiple sexual partners get HPV.

FACT: You can be infected with HPV from one sexual partner, the first time you are sexually active. Condoms offer some but not total protection from HPV, as they don’t cover all of the genital skin. They do offer protection from many other sexually transmitted infections though, and help prevent unwanted pregnancies.

MYTH: Having the vaccine at a young age leads to promiscuity.

FACT: There is no evidence that boys and girls who receive the vaccine have sex earlier than those who do not have the vaccine, and nor do they have more sexual partners once they became sexually active. Vaccination is a normal part of growing up, with the vast majority of children vaccinated at school.

MYTH: The HPV vaccine causes more serious side effects than other vaccines.

FACT: Over 205 million doses of the Gardasil vaccine have been distributed worldwide as of 31 December 2015 and all adverse reactions are monitored and investigated.

All vaccines can have side effects. The reactions that people have had after the HPV vaccine have been similar to reactions from other vaccines. The most common side effects are pain, redness and/or swelling at the site of injection.

Very rarely, more serious side effects such as anaphylactic (allergic) reaction can occur, usually if you are allergic to an ingredient in the vaccine such as yeast.

All people are monitored for 15 minutes after having the vaccine. If an allergic reaction does occur, it can be treated quickly and successfully – every immunisation provider is trained and equipped to deal with such a reaction.

MYTH: The vaccine can give you the virus and cause cancer.

FACT: The vaccine cannot cause cancer or any other HPV-related diseases.

When you have the vaccine, your body makes antibodies which it uses to fight the real virus if you're ever exposed to it.

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Design and partial content reproduced with the kind permission of the New Zealand Ministry of Health.

The HPV vaccine is a prescription medicine. Medicines have benefits and risks. After reading this website, talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of this vaccine and to check eligibility.

Females who have had the HPV vaccine still need regular Pap tests.