Getting the HPV Vaccine After Age 26
My complete knowledge of HPV, prior to this past January, consisted of a college housemate whose cheating boyfriend gave her genital warts, and those horrible TV commercials about the kid who didn't get the shot and consequently developed cancer because of his negligent parents.
I grasped the fact that HPV was bad, but I didn't give it much more thought until this past January. That's when my partner and I met Amy and her husband, Ted. We were excited on many levels to meet these two, not the least of which was that Amy looked like a curvier Uma Thurman. She was also HPV-positive.
That's when I did some investigating online and discovered Amy was one of about 80 million Americans who currently have HPV. I did not want to be one of the 14 million people each year who become newly infected.
Suddenly, getting that shot was beginning to seem like an excellent idea.
'You're too old and you're partnered up'
The only sticking point was that my doctor didn't share my enthusiasm. She felt it was an unnecessary step, given that I don't check some of the key boxes—specifically, age and relationship status.
Since I am older than 26 and partnered, she didn't see the point. I reminded her, however, that we're polyamorous—that is, we enjoy intimate relationships with more than one partner—and told her about our situation with Amy (although I left out the Uma Thurman comparison).
Given the circumstances, she acquiesced and agreed it was indeed worthwhile for us to get the jab.
HPV (or human papillomavirus) is described by the Mayo Clinic as "a viral infection that commonly causes skin or mucous membrane growths (warts)." The clinic noted there are more than 100 varieties, some of which can lead to cervical cancer, as well as cancers of the anus, penis, vagina and throat (oropharyngeal).
'Vaccination can prevent over 90 percent of cancers caused by HPV.'
Of course, who wouldn't want to avoid these potential ailments? The trick is getting protection in place early—preferably before sex is at all an issue. The shot is typically administered between the ages of 9 and 26.
According to Christopher M. Zahn, M.D., vice president of practice activities for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, this is the recommended practice because the vaccine "is most effective among those who have not been previously exposed to HPV."
"The target age is 11 to 12," Zahn said.
Katie Grusich, a spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), further cautions that the vaccines only work prophylactically, staving off future infection. "They do not prevent progression of HPV infection to disease, decrease time to clearance of HPV infection or treat HPV-related disease," she said.
Getting a shot after 27
The vaccine is now approved through age 45, but depends on individual circumstances.
"For example, a person who has not had a previous HPV diagnosis and who is sexually active with multiple partners may make a different decision than a person who has already been exposed to HPV and has only one sexual partner," Zahn explained. "A person's family history of cancer may also impact their decision."
Grusich also stated the CDC's position is to situationally advise later vaccination. "Shared clinical decision-making...is recommended for some adults aged 27 through 45 who are not adequately vaccinated," she said.
The effectiveness of the shot is quite high in preventing both HPV infection and HPV-related cancer.
"Vaccination can prevent over 90 percent of cancers caused by HPV," Grusich added.
Zahn pointed specifically to one study that indicated a huge decline in the occurrence of cervical cancer due to vaccination.
"A study published in 2020 reported a 90 percent drop in cervical cancer incidence among women vaccinated before age 17 compared with those who had not been vaccinated," he explained.
Can't sugarcoat it…it kinda hurts!
Common side effects of the shot itself are temporary and minor, such as swelling, redness or a low fever—nothing outside the norm of most vaccines.
It is worth mentioning that the shots hurt. Both the first and second doses hurt like hell, so I asked the nurse administering vax number three why this shot was more painful than most. Turns out I was far from alone in experiencing some bonus pain and suffering.
"Pain, redness and swelling were reported in 20 to 90 percent of clinical trial participants," Zahn said.
Grusich attributes this above-average discomfort, at least as present with the Gardasil 9 vaccine, to the addition of an adjuvant.
"This helps the body to produce an immune response strong enough to protect the person from the disease he or she is being vaccinated against," Grusich said.
Not coincidentally, the nurse administering my shot mentioned that kids, the most common vaccine recipients, really hate getting it.
"It's important to remember the benefit, which is potentially avoiding life-threatening cancers in the future," Zahn said.
For my part, I'd certainly rather deal with five minutes of discomfort for the confidence of knowing I have that protection. I'm glad our introduction to Amy and Ted prompted us to go ahead and pursue the HPV vaccination. Of course, we might not ever have needed that precaution, but better safe than sorry.