I assume you’re referring to the HPV vaccine – the vaccine against Human Papilloma Virus. It has recently been introduced as part of a national immunisation programme to cut the risk of cervical cancer, which is caused by infection with certain types of HPV.
There are many different types of HPV. However, types 16 and 18 are responsible for about 75% of cases of cervical cancer in Europe. Types 6 and 11, meanwhile, account for about 90% of cases of genital warts. Interestingly, infection with types 6 or 11 does not significantly increase your risk of cervical cancer. Most people who are infected with HPV will clear the virus from their system within 6-12 months. They develop immunity to this type of the virus and are at lower risk of problems in the future. However, women who have been infected with types 16 or 18 and do not clear the virus are at higher risk of developing cervical cancer. Since these types of HPV do not cause genital warts, it’s not possible to know which women have cleared the virus and which are still carrying it.
If you’ve been exposed to one of the types of HPV which causes genital warts but don’t have symptoms, you are probably immune to this virus. That doesn’t necessarily mean, unfortunately, that you’re protected against cervical cancer. There is some evidence that the ‘quadrivalent’ HPV vaccine, Gardasil, protects against all four of these common types even if you’ve been exposed to one. However, protection is best for girls who have never been exposed to HPV. That’s why the NHS immunisation programme is targeted at girls aged 12-13. Other women can get the vaccine up to the age of 26 (the age it’s licensed up to). However, this is only available privately. It is still very important that you continue to have regular smear tests.
Answered by Dr Sarah Jarvis.
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