The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that boys and girls ages 11 and 12 get vaccinated for the human papillomavirus (HPV) for a couple of reasons: Adolescents aren’t sexually active, so they haven’t been exposed to HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States; at that age, they’re also likely to have the most robust immune response to the vaccine. (Here’s what you need to know about the CDC’s new HPV vaccine recommendation.)
Why does that matter? HPV is related to six types of cancer–most commonly, cervical cancer. Most of the 79 million Americans with HPV were infected in their late teens and early 20s. That’s why “catch up” vaccinations are recommended for people ages 13 to 26 who haven’t yet gotten the HPV vaccine. But does it make sense to get vaccinated if you’re over age 26?
“Benefits of the HPV vaccination decline sharply as people get older and start having sex,” says Elissa Meites, MD, a family physician in Atlanta, Georgia, and lead author of the CDC’s policy note on HPV vaccination for adults, published in a 2019 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. “Since vaccination only prevents new HPV infections, there is less benefit for people who might have gotten HPV before or who might be immune already.” After age 26, she adds, “public health benefits are minimal since only a small percentage of cancers would be prevented by vaccinating adults.”
That doesn’t mean it isn’t available or doesn’t make sense for older adults. Indeed, the CDC has approved the vaccine for 27- to 45-year-olds. (Here are 10 myths about HPV that could damage your health.) People at older ages who are at risk for a new HPV infection might be considered candidates for the vaccine.
“HPV is usually acquired after someone first becomes sexually active so it makes the most sense to vaccinate adolescents,” says Mary Montgomery, MD, staff physician in the division of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. “However, I would recommend the HPV vaccine for anyone between 27 and 45 who has never been sexually active, has had only a few sexual partners, or anticipates a lot of new sexual partners. It makes sense to offer them the vaccine.”
Insurance companies typically cover this, but it is around $300 out of pocket per injection, and three are required. Whether you get the vaccine or not, you should be getting routine cervical cancer screenings from age 21 to 65. (Here’s what to do if you get an abnormal pap smear.)