All girls can get the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine free from the NHS from the age of 12 up to their 18th birthday.
It helps protect them against cervical cancer, which is the most common cancer in women under 35 in the UK.
It also helps protect women against rarer HPV-related cancers, such as:
In England, girls aged 12 to 13 years are routinely offered the first HPV vaccination when they're in school year 8.
The second dose is normally offered 6 to 12 months after the first (in school year 8 or year 9).
The HPV vaccine is effective at stopping girls getting the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers, and some other anal and genital cancers and cancers of the head and neck.
It's important to have both doses to be protected.
What is HPV?
HPV is the name given to a very common group of viruses.
There are many types of HPV, some of which are called "high risk" because they're linked to the development of cancers, such as cervical cancer, anal cancer, genital cancers, and cancers of the head and neck.
Other types can cause conditions like warts or verrucas.
Nearly all cervical cancers (99.7%) are caused by infection with a high-risk type of HPV.
But only some of the anal and genital cancers, and cancers of the head and neck, are caused by HPV infection.
The rest of these cancers are caused by other risk factors like smoking and drinking alcohol.
HPV infections do not usually cause any symptoms, and most people will not know they're infected.
What are the different types of HPV and what do they do?
There are more than 100 different types of HPV and around 40 that affect the genital area.
HPV is very common and can be caught through any kind of sexual contact with another person who already has it.
Most people will get an HPV infection at some point in their lives, and their bodies will get rid of it naturally without treatment.
But some women infected with a high-risk type of HPV will not be able to clear it.
Over time, this can cause abnormal tissue growth as well as other changes in the cells of their cervix, which can lead to cervical cancer if not treated.
High-risk types of HPV are also linked to other types of cancer, including:
Infection with other types of HPV may cause:
- genital warts – small growths or skin changes on or around the genital or anal area; they're the most common viral sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the UK
- skin warts and verrucas – not on the genital area
- warts on the voice box or vocal cords (laryngeal papillomas)
How does the HPV vaccine work?
Currently, the national NHS HPV vaccination programme uses a vaccine called Gardasil.
Gardasil protects against 4 types of HPV: 6, 11, 16 and 18. Between them, types 16 and 18 are the cause of most cervical cancers in the UK (more than 70%).
These types of HPV also cause some anal and genital cancers, and some cancers of the head and neck.
HPV types 6 and 11 cause around 90% of genital warts, so using Gardasil helps protect girls against both cervical cancer and genital warts.
HPV vaccination does not protect against other infections spread during sex, such as chlamydia, and it will not stop girls getting pregnant, so it's still very important to practise safe sex.
Who can have the HPV vaccine through the NHS vaccination programme?
The first dose of the HPV vaccine is routinely offered to girls aged 12 and 13 in school year 8.
The second dose is normally offered 6 to 12 months after the first (in school year 8 or year 9). The HPV vaccine helps protect against cervical cancer.
Girls who miss either of their HPV vaccine doses should speak to their school immunisation team or their GP surgery and make an appointment to get up-to-date as soon as possible.
It's important to have both doses of the vaccine to be fully protected.
Girls can have the HPV vaccination on the NHS up to their 18th birthday.
Girls who start the HPV vaccination after the age of 15 will need 3 doses as they do not respond as well to 2 doses as younger girls do.
How is the HPV vaccination programme changing?
In July 2018, it was announced that the HPV vaccine will be extended to boys aged 12 to 13 years in England.
This decision is based on advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), the independent body that advises UK health departments on immunisation.
Currently only girls and men who have sex with men (MSM) are eligible to receive the HPV vaccine.
But from the 2019-20 school year, it's expected that 12- to 13-year-old boys will also become eligible.
This extension of the HPV vaccination programme will help prevent more cases of HPV-related cancers in boys and girls, such as head and neck cancers and anal and genital cancers.
A catch-up programme for older boys is not necessary as evidence suggests they're already benefitting greatly from the indirect protection (known as herd protection) that's built up from 10 years of the girls' HPV vaccination programme.
The priority is to make sure that as many eligible boys and girls as possible are offered protection against HPV infection from the 2019-20 school year.
Why is the HPV vaccine given at such a young age?
HPV infections can be spread by any skin-to-skin contact, and are usually found on the fingers, hands, mouth and genitals.
This means the virus can be spread during any kind of sexual activity, including touching.
The HPV vaccine works best if girls get it before they come into contact with HPV. In other words, before they become sexually active.
So getting the vaccine when recommended will help protect them during their teenage years and beyond.
Most unvaccinated people will be infected with some type of HPV at some time in their life.
In most cases, the virus does not do any harm because their immune system clears the infection.
But in some cases, the infection stays in the body for many years and then, for no apparent reason, it may start to cause damage.
Cervical screening (sometimes called a smear test) can detect these changes. The person can then be treated to stop cervical cancer developing.
HPV vaccination for men and boys
Cervical cancer does not affect boys and men because they do not have a cervix.
But other cancers that can affect men, such as cancer of the anus, penis, head and neck, are also linked to infection with HPV types 16 and 18.
In addition, HPV types 6 and 11 are responsible for the majority of genital wart infections.
Vaccinating girls indirectly helps protect boys against these types of cancer and genital warts because vaccinated girls will not pass HPV on to them. This is known as herd protection.
The number of genital wart infections in the UK has already fallen in both girls and boys because of the girls' vaccination programme.
From the 2019-20 school year, it's expected that 12- to 13-year-old boys will also become eligible for the HPV vaccine.
The first dose of the HPV vaccine will be offered routinely to boys aged 12 and 13 in year 8, in the same way that it's currently offered to girls.
Men who have sex with men (MSM) do not benefit in the same way from the girls' programme, so may be left unprotected from HPV.
From April 2018, MSM up to and including the age of 45 became eligible for free HPV vaccination on the NHS when they visit sexual health clinics and HIV clinics in England.
Ask the doctor or nurse at the clinic for more details.
HPV vaccination for transgender people
Trans women (people who were assigned male at birth) are eligible in the same way as MSM if their risk of getting HPV is similar to the risk of MSM who are eligible for the HPV vaccine.
Trans men (people who were assigned female at birth) are eligible if they have sex with other men and are aged 45 or under.
If trans men have previously completed a course of HPV vaccination as part of the girls' HPV vaccine programme, no further doses are needed.
How is the HPV vaccine given?
The HPV vaccine is currently given as a series of 2 injections into the upper arm.
They're spaced at least 6 months apart, and girls can get the vaccine for free up to their 18th birthday.
It's important to have both vaccine doses to be protected.
Girls who get their first vaccination dose at the age of 15 or older will need to have 3 injections.
Men who have sex with men (MSM), and trans men and trans women who are eligible for the vaccine, will need 3 vaccination doses (2 if they're under 15).
For those who need 3 doses of the vaccine:
- the second dose should be given at least 1 month after the first
- the third dose should be given ideally within 12 months of the second dose
It's important to have all vaccine doses to be properly protected.
How long does the HPV vaccine protect for?
Studies have already shown that the vaccine protects against HPV infection for at least 10 years, although experts expect protection to last for much longer.
But because the HPV vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer, it's important that all girls who receive the HPV vaccine also have regular cervical screening once they reach the age of 25.
Page last reviewed: 13/03/2016
Next review due: 13/03/2019