What is the HPV vaccine and who can have it?

Find out more about what human papillomavirus (HPV) is, what the HPV vaccine does, who is eligible and where to get your HPV vaccine.

  • There are more than 100 types of HPV
  • They don’t cause any problems in most people, but some high-risk types of HPV are linked to the development of some cancers
  • The vaccine aims to stop you getting the high-risk types of HPV
  • The vaccine is available to both boys and girls and you might have it in school or in a sexual health clinic, depending on your age

What is HPV?

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus that most of us will have at some point in our lives. There are more than 100 types, each with its own number.

How can you get HPV?

HPV is a common virus with many different types. Most of the types are harmless, and your body deals with it without you even knowing you have it. HPV spreads through close skin-to-skin contact, including any type of sexual activity with another person who has HPV.

Does HPV cause cancer?

14 HPV types are linked to different types of cancer. These types are called high-risk HPV.

HPV has been closely linked to cervical cancer, with nearly all cervical cancers (99.7%) being caused by infection with a high-risk type of HPV.

But these high-risk types of HPV are also linked to some other rare types of cancers, like anal cancer, head and neck cancer, and cancer of the penis.

Men who have sex with men are at higher risk of HPV infection, and therefore some of the cancers it can cause.

What is the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine aims to stop people getting some types of high-risk HPV. These high-risk types of HPV are linked to some cancers.

The vaccine is given through two injections for young people under 15.

Who is eligible to have the HPV vaccine?

Girls aged 12 and 13 have been offered the HPV vaccine since 2008.

For women in their 20s who were offered the HPV vaccine at 12 to 13 years old, the vaccine has reduced cervical cancer rates by 90%.

From the 2019-20 school year the vaccine has been offered to all 12 to 13 year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and 11 to 12 year-olds in Scotland – so boys now have access to the vaccine as well as girls.

This is an important step forward to help protect more people against cancers related to HPV – whatever your gender.

Why the HPV vaccine is important for boys and girls

The vaccine protects boys against the HPV strains that can lead to rarer cancers, such as anal cancer, and cancer of the penis.

But boys having the vaccine will also help to reduce the number of cervical cancers in women even more, as men who have sex with women won’t pass the virus on.

Vaccinating all young people against HPV will also increase something called ‘herd protection’. That’s when most people in the population are vaccinated against something, meaning people who are not vaccinated also get some protection too.

The types of cancers linked to HPV aren’t common in young people. But it’s important that young people know about this vaccination, so they can act now to help protect themselves against cancers which could affect them when they’re older.

How can I get the vaccine?

There are currently two main HPV vaccination programmes in the UK:

  • Vaccinations in schools 
  • Vaccinations at sexual health clinics for men who have sex with men

Since the beginning of the 2019-20 school year all 12 and 13 year olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and 11 and 12 year olds in Scotland have been offered the HPV vaccine.

Depending on where you are in the UK, the school year that the vaccine will be offered to you in might be different. And because there are two vaccines for this age group, you might have them across two school years. If you’re not sure when you will get your vaccine you can always check with your school. You will get your HPV vaccine during the school day.

If you miss your vaccine at school, then you can still have it for free on the NHS up until you turn 25. This applies to girls born after 1 September 1991 and boys born after 1 September 2006. 

Men who have sex with men and are under the age of 45 can ask for the vaccine as part of a routine check-up at a sexual health clinic.

Trans women (people who were assigned male at birth) can have the vaccine in the same way as men who have sex with men, if their risk of HPV is similar.

Trans men (people who were assigned female at birth) can also have the vaccine up until the age of 45 if they have sex with other men. Some trans men may have already had the vaccination as part of the girls’ programme.

People who have the vaccine after the age of 15 are given three injections instead of two because older people don’t respond to two doses as well as younger people, so need an additional dose.

What happens if you’re not eligible for the HPV vaccine?

If anyone is not eligible for the vaccine, they can pay to have the injections. These can cost around £150 per injection, and often cost more. If you are over the age of 15 you will need to have three doses of the vaccine.

If you miss your vaccine at school, then you can still have it for free on the NHS up until you turn 25. This applies to girls born after 1 September 1991 and boys born after 1 September 2006. 

Can young people with cancer have the HPV vaccine?

If you are a young person with cancer, you might not be able to have the vaccine when you’re due to have it as part of the routine vaccination programme.

If you are eligible for the vaccine this year, but you miss it because you are unwell, you will be able to have the catch-up jab up until the age of 25. You can speak to your care team if you have any questions about whether you’re eligible for the HPV vaccine.