Frequently asked questions about HPV vaccines

Why are HPV vaccines important? 

HPV vaccines prevent cancer caused by HPV infection. HPV is a very common infection. While most HPV infections will go away on their own, some will not and can become cancerous over time. HPV infection can cause:

  • Cancers of the cervix, vagina, and vulva in women
  • Cancers of the penis in men
  • Cancers of the anus and mouth and throat in both women and men

HPV infection can also cause genital warts. There are many different types of HPV. The types that cause genital warts are not the same as the types that cause cancer.

How well do HPV vaccines work?

In women who have never been infected with HPV, the vaccines prevent almost 100% of cases of cervical cancer caused by the HPV types covered by the vaccine. The HPV9 vaccine prevents about 78% of cases of anal cancers in men caused by the two main types of HPV. The vaccine also prevents about 90% to 100% of cases of genital warts in men and women that are caused by two other types of HPV.

How many doses of the HPV vaccine are needed?

The HPV vaccines are given as either two or three doses over a 6-month period. Children who start a series when they are 9 to 14 years of age need two doses given at least 6 months apart. People who start a series when 15 years of age and older and those with a weakened immune system need three doses.

Why are HPV vaccines given at such a young age?

HPV vaccines are given in Grade 6 for two reasons:

1. Research shows that 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.

2. The vaccine works best when it is given before sexual activity begins (and before any exposure to HPV). Most people 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. 

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.

Do HPV vaccines promote earlier sexual activity?

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 B.C. 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.  

Should I get the HPV vaccine if I’m already sexually active?

The HPV vaccine works best when people are vaccinated before they become sexually active. However, a person should still get the vaccine even if they are already sexually active. This is because they are unlikely to have been exposed to all of the types of HPV contained in the vaccine. The HPV vaccines do not treat HPV infections.

Are HPV vaccines safe?

Yes. HPV vaccines are 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 for use in Canada until the studies showed that it was safe and effective. Since vaccine licensure, hundreds of millions of doses of HPV vaccines have been distributed worldwide. Vaccine safety monitoring has continued to show that the HPV vaccine is safe. Learn more about vaccine safety here.

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. Fever, fatigue, headache, and muscle or joint ache may also occur. As with other vaccines, fainting has occurred following HPV vaccination. Fainting can occur with any medical procedure - not just the HPV vaccine – and people recover quickly.

Do HPV vaccines cause serious side effects?

Serious side effects to all vaccines, including HPV vaccines, are extremely rare. In most cases when serious side effects are reported, there is not enough information to determine whether the serious side effect was actually caused by the vaccine. It is important to understand the difference between a side effect that is caused by a vaccine and an unrelated event that happens to follow the receipt of a vaccine.

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

Do women still need Pap tests if they get the HPV vaccine? 

Yes. Sexually active women of all ages will still need to get Pap tests after they’ve been vaccinated. This is important because HPV vaccines protects against most but not all cancers of the cervix.

Is it safe for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding to get a HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccines are not recommended for use in pregnancy because the safety of the vaccines in pregnancy is unknown. 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. The HPV vaccine may be administered to breastfeeding women.

Who can get a HPV vaccine for free?

You can find a list of people eligible for a free HPV vaccine here. Those not eligible for the free vaccine can purchase the vaccine at most pharmacies and travel clinics. Some private health insurance plans cover the cost of the vaccine.