Get your child vaccinated against HPV

South Africa's HPV (Human Papillomavirus) vaccine rollout against cervical cancer is being provided free of charge to all grade 4 girls (around age 9) at public and special schools.

Private schools are currently not included in the campaign, nor are boys.

Get your daughter vaccinated

The Department of Health assures parents that vaccination is their choice and only once they have signed a consent form can their child be vaccinated.

But if you have a young daughter, regardless if she attends a school receiving the government-funded vaccine or not, it is strongly recommended to have her vaccinated against HPV says Professor Greta Dreyer, Principal Specialist, Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Pretoria.

HPV is considered a serious infection primarily because it is the main cause of cervical cancer,  second only to breast cancer as the most common type of cancer in South African women.

HPV may also cause cancer of the vulva, vagina, anus and penis, as well as oral cancer (cancer of the mouth and throat).

Read: HPV tied to throat cancers

The most common way to get this highly contagious infection is by skin-to-skin contact during oral, vaginal or anal sex with someone who has HPV.

When should girls get vaccinated?

The optimal age for HPV vaccination is nine to 13 years, says Dreyer, because at that age the body has optimal immunogenicity: the immune system responds to the vaccine, resulting in the production of protective antibodies against the virus.

Young women aged into their mid-20s will benefit from the vaccine too however.

"The vaccine is potentially beneficial at any age," says Dreyer, "but it is much more likely to be so if given to the young age group."

This is both because of the greater immunogenicity at this age, and because young girls are less likely to have been exposed to the virus. The vaccine does not appear to offer any protection once a person has already been exposed to HPV infection.

Cost and availability

The HPV vaccine is widely available and can be administered at many pharmacies in South Africa. It requires a prescription which doctors can supply usually without needing to see the patient.

Currently for private patients the vaccine costs around R1500 - three shots are required, at R500 each.

At this point, most medical aids are not covering the cost of the vaccine.

Peter Jordan, Marketing Executive of Fedhealth, says that in their case, they may consider funding the vaccine in a few years' time, but at the moment it is prohibitively expensive to do so.

"The vaccine is also not the only means we have of preventing cervical cancer,"

says Jordan. "Regular Pap smears, which we do cover, remain an important screening tool and are recommended even if you've been vaccinated."

The vaccine has been hailed by the international medical community as an excellent health intervention.

"It's a wonderful vaccine," agrees Dreyer, "and it's very safe."

Should boys get vaccinated?

Parents should certainly consider the HPV vaccine for boys too, says Dreyer, who has had her two sons vaccinated.

The primary initial push around the world and now in South Africa is to get young girls vaccinated, because this is the most cost-effective means of reducing transmission of the virus, and the most effective way to prevent its most serious consequence - cervical cancer.

"But the vaccine helps prevent other cancers in men too," says Dreyer, "and vaccinating boys further guards against transmission to girls."

Read more:
Schoolgirls in North West get HPV vaccine
CANSA CEO responds to HPV vaccine rollout

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