What you must know about the free HPV vaccine for girls

Confused about the government’s new programme to offer the human papilloma virus vaccination to all Secondary 1 girls? EVELINE GAN finds out what it’s about and whether you should opt in.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Since April this year, 13-year-old girls in national schools have had free vaccinations against the human papilloma virus, or HPV.

The opt-in vaccination, which is done in school, will be offered to all girls attending Secondary 1, or the equivalent. Girls currently in Secondary 2 to 5 will also be eligible for the vaccination as a one-time catch-up measure.

Experts say the vaccine can protect against cervical cancer, a preventable disease and one of the top women’s cancers here. Almost 200 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed yearly in Singapore. 

Still, some parents have expressed concerns about vaccinating their daughters, such as its potential side effects and safety. Here, Dr Joseph Ng, president of the Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology of Singapore, shares more on HPV infections and how the vaccination works.

What is HPV?

The virus is typically transmitted through sexual activity, and rarely, during delivery from an infected mum to her baby. By the age of 50, four in five women will have been infected with this virus during their lives. 

HPV-related cancers are much more common than liver cancer against which we vaccinate our children routinely using the Hepatitis B vaccine. 

HPV and cervical cancer – what’s the link?

HPV infection causes more than 99 percent cases of cervical cancer. Most of these infections are cleared by the body naturally. But, persistent HPV infections can cause abnormal cervical cells to grow over time, resulting in cervical cancer in women.

There are over 100 types of HPV strains, but only 14 high-risk types may lead to cancer. Some of the low-risk types can cause genital warts. 

Who is the HPV vaccine recommended for?

It’s recommended for girls aged nine to 26 years old and are most effective before they are exposed to the virus (usually via sexual contact).

However, women who are sexually active may still benefit from the vaccine as they may not be exposed to the types of HPV covered by the vaccine, according to HealthHub.sg by the Ministry of Health and Health Promotion Board.

Is it safe?

The vaccine consists of viral-like particles – these are components of the HPV virus, and not the virus itself.

The vaccines went through years of extensive safety testing before they were licensed by the United States’ Food and Drug Administration to ensure they were safe, says the US’ Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Are there side effects?

There are misconceptions that the vaccine can cause infertility and complex neurological syndromes, says Dr Ng.

The HPV vaccination is typically not associated with any serious side effects.

But like any vaccine or medicine, they may cause side effects – the most common being pain, redness, or swelling in the arm where the shot was given, as well as dizziness, fainting, nausea and headache, according to the CDC.

Why introduce a national HPV vaccination programme?

Worldwide, more than 80 countries have adopted national HPV vaccination programmes, Dr Ng shares.

In countries like Australia, systematic vaccination starting with girls in a national schools programme has shown to be effective in reducing incidence of cervical cancer and HPV-related health conditions, Dr Ng says.

Australia was the first country to adopt this type of vaccination programme and will likely be the first in the world to be cervical cancer-free, he adds.

How is the vaccine given?

The vaccine is given in 0.5ml doses. If your daughter is aged nine to 14, she will be given two doses, six months apart.

Those aged 15 to 26 years old should receive three doses in a span of six months. Your daughter will not require booster shots.

“We believe that this single vaccination series confers lifelong immunity,” Dr Ng says.

Will my daughter be cervical cancer-free after the vaccination?

When given in the recommended manner, the vaccine provides up to 70 percent protection against cervical cancer.

Girls who have had the vaccine will still need to go for regular testing as the vaccine doesn’t protect against all the strains.

What if I don’t want my daughter to be vaccinated?

This is opt-in scheme, and parents will have to give consent, but Dr Ng strongly recommends the vaccination.

“As a women’s cancer specialist, I would strong recommend vaccination as a reasonable, safe and effective way to protect against HPV-related cancers. They are much more common than liver cancer against which we vaccinate our children routinely using the Hepatitis B vaccine,” he says.