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The HPV vaccine: What you need to know

Dr Hamish Black

Here's what you need to know about the vaccine and how it protects you

Dark haired young women getting a job from a male clinician
Dark haired young women getting a job from a male clinician

The HPV vaccine serves as your best protection against human papillomavirus. Here's what you need to know about the vaccine and how it protects you.

What is HPV?

The Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a very common virus that is spread through sexual contact. In fact, around 90% of the population will have HPV at some point in their lives, and it can live on the skin for years. While many people will not experience symptoms, it can cause genital warts or, in serious cases, develop into cancer, especially in the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis and anus. HPV infection can also cause some cancers of the head and neck. Fortunately, there is an effective vaccine that can help protect you – and help reduce the spread to other people.

Who needs the vaccine?

Anyone who wants to protect themselves against HPV should talk to their GP about getting vaccinated. However, it’s specifically recommended that you get the vaccine if you:

  • Are a younger person aged 9 to 25

  • Are immunocompromised

  • Are a man who has sex with other men.

It’s not recommended pregnant women get the vaccine, however breastfeeding women can.

How does the vaccine work?

The HPV vaccine does not contain a live virus, but is based on virus-like particles. These particles are not infectious but they do closely resemble the natural virus, which stimulates the body to produce antibodies, assisting the vaccine to be effective.  “If we do then get infected, these antibodies counteract the harmful effects of the virus,” explains Dr Hamish Black, nib Group Medical Advisor. The HPV vaccine is given through an injection, usually in the upper arm. If you’re younger than 26, you’ll likely only need one dose.

If you’re older than 26 or immunocompromised, it’s recommended you get three doses in total, with the second dose given two months after the first dose, and the third and final dose given six months after the first dose.

Types of HPV vaccine

There are two types of HPV vaccine:

  • Gardasil 9 – protects against nine strains of HPV

  • Cervarix – protects against two strains of HPV

Gardasil 9 is funded under the National Immunisation Program while Cervarix is only available on private prescription.

When to get the HPV vaccine

Hamish explains that the HPV vaccine works best when it’s given before someone is exposed to the virus – so before they become sexually active. That’s why the HPV vaccine is free for those aged 12 to 13 under the National Immunisation Program. Giving a vaccine that is designed to prevent a sexually transmitted virus to a child can be confronting for parents, but Hamish notes that early vaccination, even if you think your child is far from being sexually active, is important.

The aim of this program is to eliminate harmful HPV from our population and cure us of certain cancers, especially cervical cancer.

A catch-up program allows people aged up to 26 to also get the vaccination for free.

Related article: How the new cervical cancer test can save your life

Do you need a booster?  

If you received a single dose before age 26, you don’t need a second dose to be fully vaccinated. However, if you are immunocompromised – even if you are younger than 26 – it is recommended to still receive three doses of the HPV vaccine. These doses are funded until you reach age 26.

Chat to your GP for advice on what’s right for you.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner. 

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black has been a medical practitioner for more than 25 years. In addition to his role as nib group medical advisor, he still spends two days a week practising as a GP. He has spent many years working in emergency departments and in rural Australia, including a stint with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Hamish also loves karaoke and dancing (though not that well at either, he says!), with Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry being his karaoke favourite.