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Cervical Cancer Vaccine
A new vaccine that helps protect against cervical cancer has been in the news lately, as states debate whether to insist on the vaccine for schoolchildren and parents try to decide whether to get the shots for their daughters.
The vaccine, which is called Gardasil, protects against four strains of human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer and genital warts. There are more than four strains of HPV, but those four strains are responsible for about 70 percent of cervical cancer and about 90 percent of genital warts cases, according to the vaccine manufacturer.
HPV is a very widespread virus: About 20 million Americans have it, according to the Centers for Disease Control. About 80 percent of women will have an HPV infection by the time they are 50, but most HPV infections do not develop into cervical cancer.
When they do, though, the results can be catastrophic. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 11,000 new cases of invasive cervical cancer will be diagnosed in American women in 2007, and almost 3,700 women will die from the disease. Many more will be left unable to have children, since hysterectomy is the usual treatment for many kinds of cervical cancer.
Gardasil can prevent cancer before it happens; in fact, it is the first vaccine against any kind of cancer. Although it is extremely effective against cancer caused by the four strains of HPV, it does not prevent cancer caused by other strains of the virus. And it is most effective in women who have not already been exposed to the HPV virus. As a result, it is recommended for use in girls before they become sexually active, and can be given to girls as young as age 9.
The vaccine is given in a series of three shots over a six-month period. It is considered very safe; the main side effect is soreness at the injection site. Since the vaccine is so new, research only shows that the vaccine is effective for four years, though it may be effective for longer. And since it only protects against some strains of HPV, women need to continue to have regular exams and Pap tests once they become sexually active.
Several states are considering requiring the vaccine for girls in school, much like they currently require immunizations against common diseases such as measles and mumps.
However, there has been some controversy. First, the shots are expensive, and the amount of insurance coverage varies significantly. If you are considering getting the vaccine for your children, you should check with your doctor about cost and with your insurer about coverage.
Some parents have expressed concern that giving girls the vaccine may imply that after they are vaccinated it will be acceptable, or at least safer, to engage in sex. However, other parents have used the vaccine as a way of introducing a discussion with their daughters about responsible sexual behavior.
If you have young daughters, you may want to talk to your pediatrician about their recommendations regarding the HPV vaccine.