I was pretty naive in my 20s when it came to my health. When a vaccine for the human papilloma virus (HPV) came out, I was hesitant to get it since I was already in a monogamous relationship, which eventually lasted for 9 years. But here’s the problem, when that relationship ended I was 28 and aged out of being able to receive the vaccine. Sure, I was having very safe and protective safe but what a lot of people don’t realize, is that you can STILL get the HPV vaccine using condoms. Fortunately, us ladies over 27 who never had the chance to get the vaccine, finally can. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved expanding the use of the HPV vaccine, Gardasil to include adults between the ages of 27 and 45. This is a pretty big deal.
For years I never understood why the vaccine wasn’t available to people — especially women — over 27. The logic behind it was that a person over the age of 27 was more likely to have already been exposed to HPV. But what if a person over 27 actually had less exposure than a 21-year-old who was still eligible to get the vaccine? Well, apparently that was something researchers started to think about themselves.
“Vaccine/Medication approval follows a strict set of requirements that involve submitting data from studies or clinical trials. Based on what the desired outcome and the ages, whether men or women, the FDA reviews the data to make sure the vaccine does what it says it’s supposed to do,” says Dr. Diana E. Ramos, an obstetrician-gynecologist based in Los Angeles, California. “The FDA gives their approval for the ages, indications, based on the studies presented to them by the manufacturer.”
When the HPV vaccine first came out, young girls were top of mind.
“The studies are around immunizing young girls with the goal of protecting them prior to ever being exposed to HPV,” says Dr. Ana Cepin, an OB-GYN based in NYC. “That is still the goal — we should aim to vaccinate girls. We now have evidence that it is also effective in older women, so they applied to expand the age range. But it is still more effective in girls — they respond better to the vaccine and achieve protection prior to exposure.”
The Gardasil vaccine was originally intended to prevent cancers and diseases associated with only four strains of HPV. In 2014, a new version of the vaccine called Gardasil 9 was approved and covered five additional strains. The vaccine became a lot more effective when it came to prevention but still only covered people until the age of 26. Now it protects from 9 strains and covers a wider age range of folks.
“Gardasil only protects you from “9” HPV strains. There are dozens of HPV strains which can affect the genital area,” says Dr. Cepin. “You can certainly still get HPV after vaccination. However, the vaccine covers the more prevalent dangerous strains.” In other words, it covers the cancer preventing ones, which are the ones you really need to be protected from.
The reason why the vaccine is most effective in young children is that it works best on someone who hasn’t become sexually active yet and has never before been exposed to HPV. But even if you have been exposed or even had an HPV strain at some point, doctors still recommend getting the vaccine.
“You can still qualify for the vaccine even if you have been exposed to one strain of the virus,” says Dr. Maria Betancourt, an obstetrician-gynecologist based in NYC. “It will protect you against the other 8 strains and in particular the 16 &18 virus, which are the most aggressive viruses … It is important for all men and women between ages 27 -45 who are at risk for exposure to get vaccinated. The vaccine can prevent many cancers due to HPV including cervical cancer, vaginal cancer, vulvar cancer, penile cancer, anal cancer, and oral and throat cancers. It also prevents genital warts.”
But just because the FDA approved it for patients 27-45, doesn’t necessarily mean that your insurance covers it yet. Even if your insurance does already cover it, your doctor may not provide it yet. If you’re considering getting vaccinated this year, doctors highly recommend checking in with your insurance carrier first.
“Patients age 27-45 who are interested in Gardasil 9 should check with their insurance carrier first for coverage, then with their doctor’s office to make sure they stock and administer the vaccine,” says Dr. Betancourt who explains how the vaccine is administered in a series of three injections over a 6-month period of time.
Men between the ages 27-45 are also encouraged to get vaccinated. While it’s rare for men to experience the symptoms of HPV and are less at risk at getting cancer, they still function as carriers that can transmit the virus to women who are a lot more likely to develop cancers or symptoms from HPV. So it might not be the worst idea to let some of the men in your life know.
And even if you’re in a long-term relationship or married and not currently pregnant or trying to get pregnant, Betancourt highly suggests getting the vaccine anyway. I wish my doctors would have encouraged me to get vaccinated back when I was in my 9-year relationship — it would have saved me a ton of post-breakup anxiety. With that said, I am very relieved to know I still have a chance to get vaccinated and prevent myself from being at risk of any of these HPV causing cancers.
“Monogamous women or women in a long-term relationship should also consider the vaccine,” Betancourt adds. “Many times, relationships end and new ones are started. In my opinion, it is best to be protected, especially since the vaccine has been found to be so safe [with] very few side effects.”