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Breaking common misconceptions about the HPV vaccine

Misconceptions about the HPV vaccine such as it causes severe side-effects and that it only protects girls deters people from taking it. It's time to bust them

The HPV vaccine is designed to provide protection against several high-risk HPV strains especially those associated with cervical cancer(Unsplash/Belinda Fewings)

By Dr. Shweta Mutha

LAST PUBLISHED 19.01.2024  |  08:00 AM IST

The HPV vaccine has emerged as a crucial tool in the fight against not only cervical cancer but also cancers of the vagina, vulva, penis, anus, and throat – all caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). It achieves this by stimulating the body to produce antibodies. These antibodies, generated in response to the vaccine, act as defenders in future encounters with HPV, binding to the virus and preventing it from infecting cells.

Also read: Understanding the interplay between cervical cancer and mental health

The vaccine is based on virus-like particles (VLPs), which mimic the structure of the HPV virus. These VLPs are highly immunogenic, prompting the body to mount a robust immune response and generate substantial levels of antibodies. This immune response provides a formidable defense against HPV and reduces the risk of developing associated cancers.

Despite the vaccine's proven efficacy and safety, several misconceptions persist, hindering its widespread acceptance.  Let's take a close look at some of the most common myths around the HPV vaccine and understand why they are not true: 

Misconception#1: The vaccine causes severe side effects including infertility 
Fact: A common myth suggests that the HPV vaccine leads to severe side effects including infertility. Extensive research and monitoring have consistently demonstrated the vaccine's safety. The side effects are generally mild such as soreness at the injection site or mild fever, and they subside quickly.

Misconception#2: The vaccine only protects girls
Fact: Another misconception is that the HPV vaccine is exclusively for girls. In reality, both males and females benefit from the vaccine. By vaccinating both genders, we not only protect girls from cervical cancer but also boys from HPV-related cancers and reduce overall transmission of the virus.

Misconception#3: The vaccine is not effective in the long term 
Fact: Some believe that the HPV vaccine does not provide long-term protection. Contrary to this, studies have shown that the vaccine provides robust and enduring protection against HPV-related cancers. Continuous monitoring and research support the long-lasting efficacy of the vaccine.

Misconception#4: There is an age limit for the vaccine.
Fact: There is a misconception that the HPV vaccine cannot be administered past the age of 12. In reality, vaccination is recommended up to age 26 for females and up to age 21 for males. Vaccination at an older age is still beneficial, especially for individuals who may not have been vaccinated earlier.


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Also read: All you need to know about cervical health

Misconception#5: Those already infected with the virus are ineligible for the vaccine
Fact: Some believe that individuals already infected with HPV cannot receive the vaccine. On the contrary, the vaccine can still offer protection against other HPV strains not yet encountered. It is essential for those infected to discuss vaccination with their healthcare providers to determine its appropriateness.

The HPV vaccine serves as a safe and effective shield against cervical cancer through its targeted approach in stimulating the body's immune response and preventing human papillomavirus (HPV) infections. Here's a closer look at how the vaccine achieves this:

Stimulation of antibody production: The HPV vaccine works by introducing harmless components of the virus into the body, known as virus-like particles (VLPs). These VLPs closely resemble the structure of the HPV virus but do not contain genetic material, making them incapable of causing infection. When the vaccine is administered, the immune system recognizes these VLPs as foreign invaders and mounts a defense.

Immune response activation: The introduction of VLPs prompts the immune system to produce specific antibodies that target and neutralize the virus. Antibodies are proteins that circulate in the bloodstream, ready to recognize and combat the virus if the individual is exposed to the actual HPV virus in the future.

Preventing HPV infection: In subsequent encounters with HPV, the pre-existing antibodies act as a first line of defense. They bind to the virus, preventing it from infecting cells. By neutralizing the virus early in the infection process, the vaccine significantly reduces the risk of HPV-related cancers, including cervical cancer.  

Cross-protection against multiple HPV strains: The HPV vaccine is designed to provide protection against several high-risk HPV strains, particularly those most strongly associated with cervical cancer. This cross-protection is crucial because there are multiple HPV strains, and the vaccine offers a broad defense against those with the highest cancer-causing potential. 

Reduction in HPV Transmission: By preventing HPV infections in vaccinated individuals, the vaccine contributes to reducing the overall transmission of the virus within the population. This not only protects those who have been vaccinated but also helps create a "herd immunity" effect, indirectly shielding unvaccinated individuals from potential exposure to the virus.

Dr. Shweta Mutha is a radiation oncologist at Ruby Hall Clinic in Pune. 

Also read: Why cervical cancer is rising among young women