HPV Vaccine (Human Papillomavirus Vaccine)

Key vaccine facts

This vaccine gives protection against some strains of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), including ones which cause cervical cancer and mouth cancers. About 2,900 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year in the UK, and the disease kills around 900 women every year.

The HPV vaccine used in the UK is called Gardasil (see the Patient Information Leaflet ). It protects against four strains of HPV: types 6, 11, 16 and 18. Types 16 and 18 are responsible for almost 75% of the cases of cervical cancer in Europe. Type 16 also causes oral cancer. Types 6 and 11 are responsible for around 90% of the cases of genital warts.

In clinical trials, the vaccine was over 99% effective at preventing cancer caused by HPV types 16 or 18 in young women, and it is expected that vaccination will reduced the number of cases of the most common kind of cervical cancer by at least 70%. However, it is important that girls who are vaccinated continue to take up the offer of cervical smear testing later in life, so that other kinds of cervical cancer can be picked up.

HPV vaccine programmes around the world are currently being evaluated. Evidence from these shows falling numbers of young people with pre-cancerous cells (the cells that can go on to cause cervical cancer), and protection from the HPV vaccine is expected to be long-term.

In the UK the vaccine is routinely offered to girls who are aged 12-13 years. The first dose is offered during school year 8, with the second dose either 12 months or 6 months later. There should be at least a 6 month gap between the first and second doses. Girls aged 15 or older who have not been vaccinated at 12-13 years should have three doses of the vaccine to ensure good protection.

HPV vaccination in the UK is offered through schools. If a girl is not in school or misses one or both doses of the vaccine, catch-up vaccination can be provided by the GP surgery.

From April 2018 the HPV vaccine will also be offered to all men aged 45 or younger who have sex with men. This follows a successful pilot programme that has run since 2016. The vaccine will be offered at routine check-ups at sexual health (GUM) clinics and HIV clinics. See the Public Health England news item .

There is no evidence that the HPV vaccine is linked to serious side effects such as chronic fatigue syndrome. See 'Is the vaccine safe?' at the bottom of this page.

Carron’s story – cervical cancer and the HPV vaccine

In this short film Carron Hulme talks about her experience of surviving cervical cancer, and her daughters Charlotte and Mollie talk about the HPV vaccine. Thanks to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust for their help in making this film.

In the film Charlotte talks about receiving three doses of the HPV vaccine, but in 2014 the schedule changed. Girls now receive two doses, as long as they get the first dose when they are aged 12-13.


The HPV vaccine used in the UK is called Gardasil. This vaccine does not contain any live viruses and cannot cause HPV infection. It contains individual proteins from four types of HPV virus, which produce an immune response. Apart from the active ingredients (the antigens), it contains very small amounts of these ingredients:

  • Aluminium, which strengthens and lengthens the immune response to the vaccine
  • a tiny trace (a few millionths of a gram) of sodium borate (borax), used as an acidity regulator

Yeast is used in the production of Gardasil. However no yeast remains in the vaccine itself, so it can be given to those with yeast allergies.

Other brands of HPV vaccines used in other countries may contain different ingredients. If you are not in the UK, ask for the Patient Information leaflet for the vaccine you are offered.

Side effects

Common but not serious:

  • redness at the injection site
  • mild to moderate short-lasting pain at the injection site
  • headache
  • muscle pain
  • fatigue
  • slightly raised temperature

It is quite common for teenagers to have panic attacks before vaccination, or to faint during vaccination. These should not be confused with reactions to the vaccination itself.

There is no evidence that the HPV vaccine leads to an increased risk of chronic fatigue syndrome, POTS (postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome) or CRPS (Complex Regional Pain Syndrome). See 'Is the vaccine safe?' at the bottom of this page.

As with any vaccine, medicine or food, there is a very small chance of a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis). Anaphylaxis is different from less severe allergic reactions because it causes life-threatening breathing and/or circulation problems. It is always serious but can be treated with adrenaline. In the UK between 1997 and 2003 there were a total of 130 reports of anaphylaxis following ALL immunisations, but all of these people survived. Around 117 million doses of vaccines were given in the UK during this period, making the overall rate around 1 in 900,000. Depending on the cause of the reaction, and following expert guidance, the person may be able to have vaccinations in the future.

Reactions listed under ‘possible side effects’ or ‘adverse events’ on vaccine product information sheets may not all be directly linked to the vaccine. See Vaccine side effects and adverse reactions for more information on why this is the case.

In the UK you can report suspected vaccine side effects to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) through the Yellow Card Scheme . You can also view data on Yellow Card reports for individual products . See more information on the Yellow Card scheme and monitoring of vaccine safety.

More information about the vaccine

In the UK in 2014, there were 3224 new cases of cervical cancer and 890 women died from cervical cancer (see cervical cancer statistics from Cancer Research UK ). Cervical cancer is the most common cancer among women who are 15 to 34 years old. Unlike the majority of cancers, it is mainly a disease of the young, with 62% of cases occurring in women who are less than 50 years old.

The vaccine currently used in the UK is called Gardasil. It was chosen over an alternative vaccine called Cervarix because it gives wider protection. (Cervarix was used in the UK from September 2008, when the programme started, until August 2012.)

Before September 2014, girls in the UK were given three doses of the HPV vaccine. However, from September 2014 the number of doses was reduced from three to two for those who first receive the vaccine aged 12-13. This was because research has shown that two doses of the vaccine give a level of protection that is just as good and lasts just as long as three doses, as long as girls are aged 12-13 when they receive the first dose. For those who start the vaccination course over the age of 13, it is recommended that they continue to receive the three doses.

Although there is no evidence that the vaccine is unsafe during pregnancy, it is not routinely given to pregnant women. The three-dose course should be completed following pregnancy.

In some countries the HPV vaccine is given to teenage boys as well as to girls. The body which advises the UK Department of Health on vaccination issues, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) , is currently assessing whether it would be cost-effective to extend the HPV vaccine programme to boys in the UK. See the JCVI's interim statement (July 2017) . From April 2018 the HPV vaccine will be offered to men who have sex with men, as they received very little indirect protection from the girls' vaccination programme.

A new HPV vaccine which protects against nine types of HPV is being considered for use in the UK.

Does the vaccine work?

A 2015 report from Public Health England shows a significant fall in HPV infections in young women since the vaccine was introduced. In 2010-13, HPV types 16 and 18 were 66% less common in sexually active young women aged 16-18 than they were in 2008. These early findings support the view that the HPV vaccination programme will have an impact on the numbers of cases of cervical cancer in future. A 2016 study from the USA showed similar results. In April 2017, researchers at Health Protection Scotland reported a 90% fall in levels of the HPV virus in Scottish women since the vaccine was introduced in 2008 (see this BBC News story ).

The same Public Health England report also shows that the HPV vaccine has had a very high level of coverage in England. In the three years 2011/12, 2012/13 and 2013/14, 86% of girls received the full three doses of HPV vaccine. In 2015/16, 85% of girls received the full two-dose course. (Doses were reduced to two from September 2014; see 'More Information' above.)

In Australia, data from sexual health clinics show that cases of genital warts in younger women have fallen since vaccination was introduced. In 2007, the year HPV vaccination started, over 11% of women under 21 were diagnosed with genital warts at their first visit to a clinic. By 2014 this figure had fallen to just over 1%. There was also a decline in cases among 21-30 year old women; some of these would have been vaccinated against HPV. In the older age group (over 30 years) who did not receive HPV vaccination, there was no change between 2007 and 2014.

Source: HIV, viral hepatitis and sexually transmissible infections in Australia Annual Surveillance Report 2015 - The Kirby Institute

Is the vaccine safe?

Between 2009 and 2016 more than 8.5 million doses of HPV vaccine were given in the UK, with an uptake of nearly 90%. When a vaccine is given to a very large number of people in a population, it is likely just by chance that a few of them will develop some kind of medical problem around the time of vaccination; it does not prove that the vaccine caused the condition.

In the UK, side effects reported after the HPV vaccine have been carefully monitored by the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority). There is no evidence that the HPV vaccine leads to an increased risk of chronic fatigue syndrome (also called myalgic encephalomyelitis or ME). See the results of a study by the MHRA in 2013 .

There is also no evidence that the HPV vaccine leads to an increased risk of POTS (postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome) or CRPS (Complex Regional Pain Syndrome). The European Medicines Agency (EMA) carried out a full review of the evidence in 2015. Read their November 2015 press release and the full EMA report . See also our blog piece from June 2015 about this story.

In December 2012 the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority) published a 4-year safety report on Cervarix, the HPV vaccine used in the UK until September 2012. This included a breakdown of all the adverse events reported after HPV vaccination. Read the MHRA report here.

Page last updated: 
Monday, March 26, 2018


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