Earlier in October, the news broke that the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine Gardasil 9 was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to include women and men ages 27 to 45 years old. This is the latest evolution of the vaccine, which since 2014 has protected against nine types of HPV, compared with the four strains handled by its predecessor, Gardasil (approved in 2006).
The new age range caught some by surprise because up to that point the vaccine was largely advised for boys and girls younger than age 13 since the drug provides its best protection before sexual activity begins.(If the person was older than 13 but under 26, the FDA recommended they still get the HPV vaccine.) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that almost all people will have at least one form of HPV at one time or another, often without even realizing it. While many strains clear up and go away on their own, others can result in cervical cancer, genital warts and cancers of the anus, penis or back of the throat.
Currently, 80 million people in the U.S. alone are infected with some type of HPV, according to the CDC, with about 14 million new cases cropping up annually. Of those, nearly 34,000 cancer cases are diagnosed every year in the U.S. Worldwide, cervical cancer is the fifth leading cause of death for women, and the second most common form of cancer they experience.
So in a perfect world, it's best to knock the vaccine out before any sort of sexual activity begins. But what about young adults whose parents didn't let them get the vaccine as teens? Or adults reentering the dating scene after divorce or other long-term relationship? Sandy Pittman (real name withheld) fell into the latter category following her 2002 divorce at age 30, something her gynecologist took into consideration at her annual checkup in 2005.
"At the time, it was approved for use for those age 26 and under, but he felt that since I'd been married during that key 'dating and intimacy' timeframe the vaccine was targeting, that I would benefit as an 'older' dater," she recalls in an email interview.
Today, Gardasil 9 is largely covered by insurance (and is expected to be extended to the new age group thanks to the approval), but at the time Pittman received the vaccine she was left holding the burden of cost.
"I paid out of pocket for the series and knew that, at some point, people would see the value of such great advice and wisdom for those of us out there who weren't so experienced in the relationship/dating areas and had very limited sexual histories — I married the first man I had sex with," she says. "I'm glad to see the FDA has finally caught up with this. I know many doctors who have advocated for this for years, and I do think it's a life-saving vaccine for many."