Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does, Part 6: Vaccinations

Welcome to the latest installment of “Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does,” a series on Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona’s blog that highlights Planned Parenthood’s diverse array of services — the ones Jon Kyl doesn’t know about.

You know what they say: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Public health experts agree that vaccines are one of the most important advancements in medicine, and are incredibly safe and effective in preventing infectious disease. Many infectious diseases that used to lay waste to their victims are now unknown to many of us in the developed world — polio, whooping cough, measles, and rabies struck fear in the hearts of our forebears, but most young people today barely know what they are (although low rates of vaccination can still lead to outbreaks, such as 2008’s measles outbreak in Tucson). Smallpox, once a terrifying scourge, has been wiped off the planet thanks to vaccination campaigns.

We offer vaccinations against hepatitis A and B, as well as HPV.

Vaccines work by introducing antigens to your immune system. An antigen is a substance, such as a protein on the surface of a virus, that the immune system can recognize as dangerous. It is then able to attack the pathogen and, often, create a “memory” of that pathogen so it can attack it in the event of reinfection. The antigens in vaccines are very safe, and can be derived from many sources, such as inactivated (dead) or attenuated (weakened) pathogens, or fragments of pathogens. Some vaccines, such as those protecting against human papillomavirus and hepatitis B, are made with laboratory-synthesized fragments of the surface proteins of viruses, which are sufficient to produce immune response despite being completely noninfectious.

Planned Parenthood Arizona offers vaccinations against hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and human papillomavirus (HPV). All three of these viruses can be transmitted sexually, and hepatitis B and HPV can cause cancer if the infections become chronic. The hepatitis vaccines have led to all-time lows in rates of hepatitis A and hepatitis B; the HPV vaccine is still new, but emerging evidence suggests a possible decrease in HPV rates as herd immunity grows. Vaccination doesn’t just benefit you and your partner(s) — it benefits society as a whole.

Hepatitis A *

Hepatitis A (HAV) spreads through fecal-oral contact. Since virus particles can be present in microscopic bits of feces, oral contact with the anus (“rimming” or anilingus) poses the highest risk in terms of HAV transmission — oral-genital contact can also do the trick, as can manual contact between the anus and the mouth.

While HAV is rarely fatal, its symptoms can include diarrhea, vomiting, fever, aches, and jaundice. Luckily, unlike many other viruses, HAV does not become a chronic infection — once your immune system clears it, you’re immune for life. But instead of acquiring immunity by suffering through a natural infection, you can consider being vaccinated, which confers lifelong immunity while saving you the trouble of illness and infectiousness. If you are at risk for exposure to these viruses, talk to a clinician at Planned Parenthood to discuss if vaccination is right for you. You can find more information about HAV and the preventive vaccine on our blog.

Hepatitis B *

Hepatitis B virus (HBV) is highly contagious and can be transmitted by most sexual activities, such as vaginal or anal intercourse, as well as oral sex. About half of all people infected with HBV don’t show signs or symptoms; those who do usually do so within six weeks to six months of infection, and might experience fatigue, hives, fever, abdominal pain or tenderness, joint pain, loss of appetite, nausea, or vomiting. Later symptoms might include jaundice, pale stools, dark urine, and intense abdominal pain.

At least 90 percent of sufferers eventually make full recoveries. Unfortunately, an estimated 6 to 10 percent of adolescents and adults with HBV become chronic carriers, who remain contagious even after their own symptoms have disappeared. They are also at increased risk for liver cancer and cirrhosis, both of which can be fatal. Chronic HBV infection cannot be cured. The vaccine, however, offers an important avenue of treatment. Even after exposure to HBV, it is highly effective in preventing chronic infection. If you think you have been exposed, you can reduce risk of chronic infection by getting vaccinated within 14 days. You can find more information about HBV and the preventive vaccine on our blog.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

More than 6 million Americans are infected with human papillomavirus (HPV) every year, making it one of the most common sexually transmitted infections. There are many different strains of the virus, some of which can cause genital warts and others of which can lead to cancer — including cancers of the cervix, anus, penis, and throat. In most cases, an HPV infection will clear up within eight to 13 months, but if the immune system can’t eliminate the virus, the infection will become chronic. In this state, it can lurk undetected for years.

In 2006, the FDA approved Gardasil, which protects against HPV-16 and HPV-18, the strains that are jointly responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancers and 90 percent of anal cancers; as well as HPV-6 and HPV-11, which together are responsible for about 90 percent of genital warts. The HPV vaccine is approved for anyone between the ages of 9 and 26, meaning that health insurance plans will cover it if you’re in this age range. If you are older than 26, you can still be vaccinated with Gardasil — you’ll just have to pay out of pocket. Read our blog for more information about HPV and the preventive vaccine, Gardasil.

Make an appointment at a Planned Parenthood health center and discuss if preventive vaccines against hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and HPV are right for you. You can get them all at once — there is even a combination hepatitis A/B vaccine. While there, you can also discuss safer-sex methods to protect you, your partner, or your future partner(s).

* Edit, April 18, 2017: Planned Parenthood Arizona no longer offers hepatitis A or hepatitis B vaccinations. This vaccination can be obtained at other health centers, public health clinics, and health-care providers.