Frequently Asked Questions about the HPV Vaccine

1. Why is the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine important?

2. Why is the HPV vaccine needed if Pap tests can detect cervical cancer?

3. Is the HPV vaccine safe?

4. Has the safety of the HPV vaccine continued to be monitored after approval?

5. Does the HPV vaccine cause serious side effects?

6. Has the HPV vaccine resulted in death?

7. Do we know how long protection from the HPV vaccine will last?

8. My daughter is not currently sexually active. Why does she need the HPV vaccine? 

9. Does the HPV vaccine promote earlier sexual activity?

10. If I have already had sex, is it too late to get the HPV vaccine?

11. Do I still need Pap tests after I get the HPV vaccine?

12. Should pregnant women get the HPV vaccine? 

Why is the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine important? 

The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine protects against cancer.  In women who have never been infected with HPV, the HPV2 and HPV9 vaccines prevent almost 100% of cases of cancer of the cervix caused by HPV types 16 and 18. HPV9 protects against five additional cancer causing types (HPV 31, 33, 45, 52, 58) which account for about 15% of cervical cancers.The HPV9 vaccines also prevent almost 100% of cases of genital warts caused by HPV types 6 and 11. Specifically, it protects against the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers and a number of less common cancers such as cancer of the anus, penis, vagina and vulva. 

Three out of four sexually active women will become infected with HPV at some point in their lives.  While most of these infections will go away on their own, some will not, and can become cancerous over time. 

Every year in BC, approximately:  

  • 175 women will get cervical cancer
  • 50 women will die from the disease
  • 6,000 women will develop high risk changes to the cervix which are precancerous
  • Over 500,000 women will undergo Pap tests and over 20,000 will need further follow-up which may include additional Pap tests and other procedures to stop cancer of the cervix from developing
  • 110 people will get anal cancer and 20 will die from the disease
  • 5,500 people will develop genital warts

Why is the HPV vaccine needed if Pap tests can detect cervical cancer?

Pap tests are one of the most effective cancer screening tests - they can detect abnormal cells and precancerous changes before they progress to cancer. But the HPV vaccine actually prevents cancer in the first place. Further Pap tests are not perfect and not all women get tested as often as they should.  

Is the HPV vaccine safe?

Yes.  The HPV vaccine is safe.  Vaccines are approved for use in Canada only if they meet very strict standards for safety and effectiveness.  The HPV vaccine was well studied in clinical trials and was not approved in Canada until the clinical studies showed that it was safe and effective.  Since the HPV vaccine was approved, 175 million doses have been distributed worldwide. Vaccine safety monitoring has continued to show that the HPV vaccine is safe. 

Has the safety of the HPV vaccine continued to be monitored after approval?

Yes. After a vaccine is approved for use in Canada, its safety is continuously monitored.  There are several systems in place in Canada, and world-wide, to monitor vaccine safety. You can find more information about these systems here

Health officials around the world take vaccine safety very seriously. That is why every parent is asked to call the public health nurse or family doctor if any unusual or unexpected side effect occurs after immunization.

Does the HPV vaccine cause serious side effects?

Serious side effects to all vaccines, including the HPV vaccine, are extremely rare.  In most cases when serious side effects are reported, the data is insufficient to determine whether the serious side effect was actually caused by the vaccine.  

Common reactions to the HPV vaccine are similar to reactions from other vaccines and include redness, swelling and soreness in the arm where the vaccine was given, as well as headache and fever. These reactions are part of the body’s normal immune response to a vaccine.  

While there have been reports of fainting following the HPV vaccination, it is important to note that fainting can occur with any medical procedure - not just the HPV vaccine – and people recover quickly. 

The benefits of getting the HPV vaccine greatly outweigh the very small risks. 

Has the HPV vaccine resulted in death?

While deaths have been reported following the HPV vaccine, they have not been shown to be caused by the vaccine. It is important to distinguish between an event caused by a vaccine and an event that merely follows the receipt of a vaccine. 

Do we know how long protection from the HPV vaccine will last?

Studies have shown that the HPV vaccine provides good protection for at least 8 years and that the antibody level is much higher after vaccination than after natural infection. This is good news as high antibody levels usually mean longer protection. Experts predict that protection from the HPV vaccine will last for at least 15 years and probably lifelong.   

My daughter is not currently sexually active. Why does she need the HPV vaccine? 

The HPV vaccine works best when it is given before sexual activity begins (before any exposure to HPV).  Most girls and women who become infected with HPV first catch it within 2 to 5 years of becoming sexually active, so it is important to vaccinate them before they begin sexual activity.  

Additionally, research shows the vaccine actually works best when it’s given at a younger age. That’s because preteens have a better immune response to the vaccine than older teens. This means they will be better protected if they are exposed to HPV in the future. 

Anyone who engages in any kind of sexual activity involving oral or genital contact can get HPV.  Sexual intercourse is not necessary to get infected.

Does the HPV vaccine promote earlier sexual activity?

It’s about cancer, not sex. There is no evidence that being vaccinated against HPV encourages earlier sexual activity. In fact, the age of first sexual activity has actually risen in BC since the HPV vaccine program was introduced — with teens reporting fewer partners. What’s more, a study published in October 2012 in the journal Pediatrics showed no increase in sexual activity among teenage girls following HPV vaccination.  

If I have already had sex, is it too late to get the HPV vaccine?  

No. Although the HPV vaccine works best when people are vaccinated before they become sexually active, the vaccine is still recommended for those who are already sexually active. This is because they may not have been infected with HPV during previous sexual activity, and they are unlikely to be infected with all of the types of HPV contained in the vaccine.  

Do I still need Pap tests after I get the HPV vaccine? 

Yes. Sexually active women of all ages will still need to get Pap tests after they’ve been vaccinated.  While the HPV vaccine prevents infection with the two types of HPV that cause most cases of cervical cancers, the vaccine does not protect against all the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer. 

Should pregnant women receive the HPV vaccine?

No. The HPV vaccine is not recommended for use in pregnancy because data on HPV vaccination in pregnancy is limited. However if a pregnant woman happens to receive the HPV vaccine, it is important to note that the vaccine has not been shown to cause any harm to the baby.