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Everything you need to know about the HPV vaccine

Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women in South Africa, and the biggest killer, yet it’s highly preventable with vaccine – and men can benefit too. Our experts answer your questions.

17 July 2023 | By Glynis Horning

What causes cervical cancer?

The main cause of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the most common sexually-transmitted infection globally. HPV can be spread by vaginal, anal or oral sex, but it may take just a single genital skin contact, and condoms and dental dams offer only partial protection. This makes vaccination the most effective preventive measure – and vaccination against the two strains responsible for most cervical cancers is now available.

Who can get vaccinated?

The Department of Health provides free shots for girls in Grade 4 aged 9 or older at government schools as part of its Expanded Programme on Immunisation, and those at non-government schools can be vaccinated by private health professionals or at a Clicks Clinic. So can boys – and this is important, because HPV can also affect them, causing anal and penile cancers, and cancers of the mouth and throat, says Professor Michael Herbst, health specialist at the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA). It can also cause genital warts in both boys and girls.

How does vaccination work?

Girls and boys younger than 15 need two shots of the HPV vaccine six months apart, and those older than 15 need three. They should ideally get them from age 9, and preferably before age 15 – before they become sexually active. But the vaccine can be given up to age 26, says Clicks pharmacist Waheed Abdurahman. 

Can adults be vaccinated against HPV?

“From age 27 to 45, it’s required that the person chat to their doctor about whether it’s required,” says Abdurahman. “As it’s a vaccine and not a treatment, advance protection is required. The benefit after age 26 has been shown to be minimal, so generally, since the vaccine does not treat HPV, there is less benefit after people become sexually active and have likely been exposed to HPV already.”

Does vaccination put me in the clear?

Even if you have been vaccinated, it’s important to go for regular Pap smears, as while the vaccine protects against the two most common strains of HPV, it does not protect against other, less-prevalent ones that can also cause cervical cancer, and a few cervical cancer cases are not linked to HPV at all. Early detection of cancer is important – “the sooner treatment is started, the more likely it is to be effective,” says Herbst.