It's safe to proceed with HPV vaccinations during COVID-19


Dear Doctors: My daughter is overdue for her second shot of the HPV vaccine, but I’m hesitant due to the pandemic because I want her immunity to be strong right now. Are you recommending people get this vaccine during COVID?

Dear Reader: The short answer is yes, we strongly encourage everyone to receive all of their routine vaccinations at this time, including the series for the human papilloma virus, also known as HPV. Although vaccines work by interacting with the immune system, each one is specific to a certain infectious agent. The HPV vaccine creates antibodies to the human papilloma virus. That means it will not interfere with the immune system’s ability to respond to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The human papilloma virus refers to a large group of related viruses. Most cause warts on various parts of the body. The viruses are divided into low-risk types, which are rarely dangerous, and high-risk types, which can develop into cancers. These include cervical cancer, cervical precancer, certain throat cancers, anal cancer and cancers of the penis, vulva and vagina.

Elizabeth Ko, MD and Eve Glazier, MD

Taken together, HPV infection causes up to 40,000 cases of cancer each year. This includes 11,000 cases of cervical cancer, which cause 4,000 deaths each year. Cervical precancer, which means abnormal cells are present on the cervix, affects almost 200,000 women each year. Treatment to prevent more advanced cases of cervical precancer from progressing to cancer include cryosurgery or laser therapy to freeze or burn away the cells. These treatments can limit the patient's future ability to have children.

The good news is that the HPV vaccine, which was introduced in 2006, is extremely effective at offering protection from the virus. Widespread vaccination could prevent more than 90% of cancers that are now caused by HPV. Younger patients between the ages of 9 and 14 will be protected by two doses of the vaccine, with the second dose given six to 12 months after the first. Three doses are recommended for individuals between the ages of 15 and 24, with the second dose given two months after the first and the third within six months of the first. It can be a little confusing, but your health care provider will advise you on the optimal schedule for each child according to their age.

We heard from another reader, who asked us to discuss HPV and colon cancer. Although the role of HPV in anal cancer is well-established, a potential link to colon cancer has been a source of controversy. That may be changing. A study published by the National Institutes of Health found HPV infection is common in patients with colorectal cancer. The study reported that HPV infection was often found in colorectal cancer tissues, as well as tissues adjacent to the cancers. Analyses of data in Europe, Asia and South America also found a higher incidence of colon cancer among individuals infected with HPV. With a recent increase of colon cancer among younger adults, research into a potential link is increasing and may soon lead to a more definitive answer.

(Send your questions to [email protected]. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)