Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  • What is HPV?
    • HPV stands for human papillomavirus. This is a group of viruses that infect the skin or various mucous membranes (such as in the mouth or cervix). The majority of infections are not harmful, but the most common types of HPV can cause genital warts, cervical cancer and other diseases.

      HPV is very common: about 80% of people will be infected with one or more types of the virus at some time in their lives.

  • How common is HPV?
    • HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease. About 80% of men and women will become infected at some point in their lives, and it is especially common among sexually active men and women up to age 25. Many HPV infections are the cause of 70% of cervical cancers.

  • What does the HPV vaccine do?
    • The HPV vaccine contains particles that mimic the most common types of the virus. These particles are not live virus and cannot cause infection, but when the vaccine is injected into a person’s body, his or her immune system responds as if it was the actual virus. By building antibodies against these particles, the body builds a defense system that will fight off the real virus if it ever appears. This system works so well that the vaccine is nearly 100% effective in preventing any future infections with the same types of HPV.

  • How common is cervical cancer among those who don’t get vaccinated?
    • Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women worldwide, and the fifth most common in the WHO European Region. Over 67000 new cases and 28000 deaths caused by cervical cancer were reported in the WHO European Region in 2012.

  • Will the vaccine have a negative influence on my daughter’s sexual behavior or choices later in life?
    • No, there is no evidence that the vaccine will impact future behavior.

      Some parents worry that giving their children the HPV vaccine may lead them to have sex sooner or to have more partners, but there is no evidence supporting this. Studies show that girls who have received the HPV vaccine do not start having sex sooner and do not have more sexual partners than girls who do not get the vaccine. Giving a child the HPV vaccine reduces or eliminates the risk of cervical and other cancers, cervical lesions, and genital warts and is a positive step to improve your child’s future health and wellbeing.

  • Does the vaccine have any side effects and, if so, what are they?
    • Like other vaccines and medicines, the HPV vaccine often produces mild side effects, such as redness, swelling or soreness in the arm where the injection is given. Some people also experience headache, mild fever, aches in joints or muscles or temporary nausea. These side effects usually last less than a day and are not dangerous.

      Occasionally, a person may faint when given a vaccine or other injection. This is more common when many young people are vaccinated as a group, such as in a school setting. This reaction is thought to be due to stress and anxiety, not to the vaccine itself.

      About one in a million people who receive a vaccine of any kind will experience an allergic reaction (such as anaphylactic shock). Therefore, as a precaution a person receiving the vaccine should stay sitting or lie down for 15 minutes afterwards. If they feel light headed or have any changes in hearing or vision right after vaccination they should tell the health care provider.

      Unfortunately rumors linking HPV vaccination to severe side effects or chronic health problems circulate on social media and among teenagers. Extensive studies and ongoing safety monitoring of the over 270 million doses administered so far throughout the world do not support any such links.

  • What if I am in a monogamous relationship, or plan to only be in one monogamous relationship once I am old enough? Does it still make sense to get vaccinated?
    • Yes.

      Even people with only one sexual partner have high rates of HPV infection. While you may only have (or plan to have) one sexual partner, he or she may have had other sexual partners before you or during your relationship. Either of you may also have other partners in the future. Vaccination will protect both of you from becoming infected and passing the virus on to others.

  • No one in my family has had cervical cancer. Is it still relevant for me to get the vaccine?
    • Yes. The risk of developing HPV-related cancers is not linked to a person’s genes, so your risk of getting cervical cancer are the same as anyone else’s, even if you have no family history of the disease.

  • Is the vaccine safe?
    • Yes, all three HPV vaccines are among the safest and most effective vaccines ever licensed.

      Each HPV vaccine was thoroughly tested for safety and effectiveness in clinical trials before being introduced to the general public. Monitoring has also continued since the vaccines were introduced; and after 270 million doses of HPV vaccines administered in 71 countries so far, the vaccines continue to have very good safety profiles.

      The Global Advisory Committee for Vaccine Safety (GACVS) regularly reviews the scientific evidence on the safety of HPV vaccines provided by studies conducted around the world. Any serious event following immunization that could potentially be associated with the vaccine is investigated and the Committee looks at how often they occurred before and after introduction of the vaccine. In January 2016, the Committee concluded that there was no evidence to support any serious safety concerns related to the use of these vaccines. The European Medicines Agency also conducted an independent assessment and concluded that the vaccines are safe and effective.

  • Is there more than one HPV vaccine, and what is the difference between them?
    • Three different HPV vaccines are currently in use:

      • Gardasil, made by Merck Sharp & Dohme (sometimes called MSD or Merck) and licensed for use in 2006, protects against 4 types of HPV.
      • Cervarix, made by GlaxoSmithKline (sometimes called GSK) and licensed in 2007 protects against 2 types of HPV.
      • Gardasil 9, made by MSD and licensed in 2014, protects against 9 types of HPV.

      Each country’s national regulatory authority decides which vaccines will be available in that country. All three vaccines are highly efficacious in preventing cervical cancer and most other HPV-related types of cancer, as long as the recommended number of doses is taken. The two Gardasil vaccines also prevent genital warts.

      If more than one type of HPV vaccine is available in your country, you can discuss with your health care provider which vaccine is the best option for you or your child. Immunization experts do not recommend getting more than one series of HPV vaccines.

  • Is a health check needed before getting the vaccine?
    • No, a health check is not necessary.

      There is no need for a person without existing health issues to get a health check before getting the vaccine. However, be sure to discuss with your health provider whether getting the vaccine is advised if you:

      • Are scheduled to receive your second dose of an HPV vaccine but had an allergic reaction after receiving the first dose;
      • Are allergic to yeast or have other severe allergies.

      The vaccine has not been tested among pregnant women, so they should delay getting vaccinated or finalizing their vaccination schedule until after the pregnancy.

  • What is in the HPV vaccine?
    • Vaccines are made up of virus-like particles that contain the protein coat of the virus, without any of the genetic materials from the virus itself. By resembling the virus, the vaccine stimulates the immune system to produce protective antibodies against HPV.

      To be as effective as possible, the vaccine also contains tiny amounts of adjuvants (substances that help enhance the body’s immune response). These include mineral salts, water and materials such as aluminum sulfate (alum) – a substance we are already regularly exposed to through the air, food and cosmetics such as deodorants.

      Contrary to some rumours, currently available HPV vaccines do not contain Thiomersal (an authorized and harmless preservative used in some other vaccines), nor any other form of mercury.

  • I have a chronic health condition. Can I still get vaccinated?
    • In most cases, yes. However you should discuss the risks and benefits of vaccination with your health care provider.

  • Can the vaccine affect fertility?
    • No. HPV vaccines do not affect fertility. Clinical trials before the first HPV vaccine was licensed in 2006 and safety monitoring and studies since its introduction have confirmed that the vaccine does not cause any reproductive problems in women.

      In fact, the HPV vaccine helps to protect fertility by preventing pre-cancerous cervical lesions and cervical cancer. Surgical treatment of pre-cancerous cervical lesions can lead to premature labor and loss of a fetus, and treatment for cervical cancer (removal of the cervix and uterus, chemotherapy and/or radiation) leaves a woman unable to bear more children.

  • Why do different countries give the vaccine to girls at different ages?
    • WHO recommends that two doses of an HPV vaccine be given to 9–14-year-old girls as a priority. Once programs for this group are successfully set up, a country may decide to expand coverage to older adolescents and young women and boys. Each country makes its own decision about who should be given the HPV vaccine, based on the national context. In some countries the HPV vaccine is given in school-based programs at a particular grade in school and the age recommendations may be based on that. Some countries offer vaccines to a restricted age group of girls only, while others encourage and pay for immunization of all girls and women up to age 26 as a “catch-up” immunization.

  • Would it be better to wait until my daughter is older?
    • No.

      There is no reason to wait until your daughter is older than the recommended 9–14 years of age to get the vaccine. The HPV vaccine produces a stronger immune response at this age than later in life and it is most effective if given before a person comes in contact with the targeted HPV types. Also only 2 doses are needed at that age. HPV is most prevalent among people younger than 25 of age, so many become infected within just a few years of starting sexual activity. This is true even for people who have only one sexual partner.

      If a girl does not start the 2-dose series of HPV vaccination before turning 15, she will need a third dose to ensure she is fully protected. This is because the immune response is best at the recommended age.

  • How long is the vaccine effective?
    • Because the first vaccine was introduced in 2006, the full duration of protection is not yet known. New evidence shows that people vaccinated more than 10 years ago still have complete protection against the HPV types in the vaccine used, and are therefore still protected from developing pre-cancerous cervical lesions, genital warts and other diseases caused by these HPV types. There is no sign that this protection is decreasing in the currently vaccinated population and many experts believe the vaccine will prove to be effective for several decades.

  • Why is the vaccine often only given to girls?
    • Cervical cancer is the most common disease caused by HPV. Protecting women from this potentially fatal disease is therefore the main aim of HPV vaccination programs. WHO and national authorities in most countries recommend that vaccination against HPV be offered to girls and women as the first priority. Protecting women from HPV also indirectly protects their partners, and this community protection or ‘herd immunity’ has shown to be very effective in impeding the spread of the virus.

      Each country makes its own decision about who should be given the HPV vaccine, based on the national disease burden and available funding. If they have enough capacity and funding, a country may decide to expand coverage to girls older than 14 and to boys. So far, 11 countries, including Austria, Switzerland and parts of Italy offer the vaccine to both boys and girls.

  • Is regular cervical cancer screening still necessary for women who have received the vaccine?
    • Yes. Women who have received the vaccine should still be screened for cervical cancer as recommended in their country. The vaccine protects against most (71-90%), but not all, of HPV types that can cause cancer. Cervical cancer screening programs like PAP smears and visual inspections can find lesions caused by the remaining types early, so they can be treated before they become cancerous. Also the vaccine will not protect women against types with which they were already infected before receiving the vaccine.

  • Has the introduction of HPV been a success?
    • Yes. Countries with high uptake of HPV vaccines are seeing a clear decline in the rate of HPV infection and cervical abnormalities; a resulting drop in cervical cancer is expected to become visible in the next few years. The same countries are also seeing a dramatic, over 90% decrease in the prevalence of genital warts.

  • Why is the vaccine being introduced now?
    • HPV vaccination has been proven to be effective as well as cost-effective in reducing the human and financial burden of HPV infections.

      Once a vaccine has been thoroughly tested and then approved, each country must decide whether it is feasible and affordable to add it to their immunization program. An independent body of experts looks carefully at the rate of infection in the country, the effectiveness of the vaccine, who will be eligible and whether the country has sufficient resources available. The new vaccine must also go through a separate licensing procedure in each country, which can take several years. Introducing a new vaccine within a country must also be prepared well in advance so that the public is aware of the benefits of the new vaccine, they know when it should be administered, and to ensure that enough vaccines are available to meet the demand.

      More than 100 countries have licensed one or more HPV vaccines. The first countries introduced the vaccine in 2006, and as of 31 March 2017, globally 71 countries (including 33 in the WHO European Region) have added HPV vaccination to their national immunization programs for girls. 11 of these countries have also introduced it for boys. 20 More countries plan to introduce the vaccine in the coming years.

  • Is HPV vaccination still in an experimental stage?
    • No.

      The three available HPV vaccines are not experimental vaccines. Each was tested in extensive clinical trials before being licensed. The first HPV vaccine was licensed in 2006, and since then more than 270 million doses of HPV vaccines have been distributed in 71 countries.

  • Does the available evidence justify the introduction of this vaccine into routine immunization?
    • Yes. WHO, professional societies, and the health ministries in 71 countries supported by independent expert groups on immunization have examined the evidence on effectiveness, cost-effectiveness and safety of HPV vaccination and have concluded that routine introduction of an HPV vaccine is justified and strongly recommended.