Why get the HPV vaccine? ‘No one is immune from the potential for exposure’

In this Aug. 28, 2006, file photo, a doctor holds a vial of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine Gardasil in his Chicago office. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused disruptions in people seeking preventive health care, but a Johns Hopkins Medicine doctor is stressing the importance of gynecological screenings during January’s Cervical Health Awareness Month.

Cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer death for women in the U.S., but that has changed in recent decades, largely because of regular Pap tests.

“The combined impact of two interventions, vaccine and screening, has led to a drastic decrease in cervical cancer in our country and a real opportunity for women to be empowered to take care of the own health and well-being — which is very exciting for those of us who take care of women every day,” said Dr. Stephanie Wethington, director of the Susan L. Burgert M.D. Gynecologic Oncology Survivorship Program.

“We’ve updated what we think of as the ‘Pap’ smear,” Wethington said.

The procedure now typically involves both the examination of cervical cells under a microscope and testing for the human papillomavirus or, in some cases, just HPV testing alone.

HPV is passed between people through skin-to-skin contact and is the most common sexually transmitted infection. It can lead to cancer of the cervix, anus, head and neck. But the HPV vaccine protects against it.

The vaccine is now recommended for boys and girls, and men and women, from ages 9 to 45.

Wethington said HPV is “very, very prevalent.”

“The vast majority of American men and women have been exposed to HPV at some point in their lives,” she said. “And that’s where the benefit from the vaccine comes from — because no one is immune from the potential for exposure.”

Many of the more than 100 varieties of HPV can be passed through sexual contact. Many people have HPV and don’t know it, meaning they can unknowingly pass it to their partners.

“One of the questions I often get from individuals is about the fact they’ve been with their partner for a long time and so perhaps they don’t need it. But what we don’t know is earlier exposures and also what might change in the future,” Wethington said.

The American Sexual Health Association is hosting an “Us vs. HPV” webinar from Jan. 25 to 29, between 12 p.m. and 1 p.m.

“More than 13,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, a fact made all the more frustrating because the disease is virtually always preventable with vaccination and appropriate screening,” the group’s website states.

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