SOUTHEASTERN NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) - A virus spread from person-to-person through intimate contact can cause cancer decades later, and the best way to protect yourself and your kids is getting a vaccine at ages 11-12, but as early as age 9 and as late as 26 years old.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is most commonly transmitted through vaginal or anal sex, but can also be spread through oral sex or other intimate contact with an infected person, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The trick to avoiding the virus is getting kids vaccinated before they are sexually active, said Ashley Vernon, RN, STD program coordinator at the New Hanover County Health Department.
"My advice to parents is: No, patients obviously aren't sexually active at age 9," said Vernon. "But the earlier they can get (the vaccine), their body is building up that immunity, so when they do start becoming sexually active, it is preventing them from getting that virus."
There are specific guidelines for when people should get the HPV vaccine, but generally young women can get the vaccine until age 26 and young men through age 21, the CDC says.
Kids younger than 14 who get the vaccine need two shots, 6-12 months apart. After age 14, a teen will need three HPV vaccine shots given over 6 months.
Every year in the U.S., 33,700 women and men are diagnosed with cancer caused by HPV infection, the CDC says. The HPV vaccine could prevent more than 90 percent of these cancers from ever developing.
"HPV is so common that nearly all men and women get it at some point in their lives," according to the CDC. "In most cases, HPV goes away on its own and does not cause any health problems. But when HPV does not go away, it can cause health problems like genital warts and cancer."
HPV can cause cancer years or decades later, and there are usually no warning signs until the HPV cancer is very serious and hard to treat, the CDC says.
Cancer from HPV can grow in the male and female genital area, and also the back of the throat, tongue, and tonsils.
The only HPV cancer with a screening test is cervical cancer, the pap smear. That's why it's so important to get the vaccine and protect yourself, the CDC says.
"We are seeing a lot of patients who are sexually active at a younger age now," said Vernon. "So it is important to get that vaccine early."
There is no medical treatment to get rid of the HPV virus if you body does not clear the virus on its own.
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