Health & Development
Preventing Cervical Cancer Through HPV Vaccine
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Few things are harder for Group Health Physicians gynecologist Jeffrey Grice, MD, than telling a patient she has cancer. So when he first learned about the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which prevents many cases of cervical cancer, he was ecstatic. While cervical cancer has a good cure rate, it can still rob a woman of her ability to have a baby.
"It's a very sad day to have that conversation with a young woman who has never had children or wants more," Dr. Grice says. "To have that option taken away is devastating."
It's no surprise that Grice firmly believes that girls, beginning at age 11, should receive the vaccine, called Gardasil. If a girl is not vaccinated at age 11, or did not receive the complete series, she can still get it up to age 26.
Gardasil prevents infection by the strain of HPV that causes most cases of cervical cancer and genital warts. The vaccine is among those recommended by Group Health, and by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It's given in three shots spread out over six months. Side effects are rare and mild. "Evidence is that it's very safe," Grice says.
The human papillomavirus is transmitted via sexual contact — and that has caused some muted controversy over the vaccine. Pediatrician John Dunn, MD, who is co-chair of the Group Health Immunization Team, says that most of the objections he's heard are from parents who say their child is not sexually active and so doesn't need the vaccine. But because the vaccine is most effective if it is given before any sexual activity occurs, it's important that girls be immunized at a young age.
"Within a year of starting sexual activity, there's between a 30 and 40 percent chance that a girl will have contracted at least one strain of papillomavirus," says Dr. Dunn. "It's ubiquitous and people contract it very easily. And since there are usually no symptoms, they can unknowingly spread the virus."
The vaccine is not a treatment, but purely a preventive measure, Dr. Dunn says. It only keeps someone from acquiring an HPV infection, and will not cure it. "That's why we want to get people vaccinated before they become sexually active, and why we target 11-year-olds," he says. "I think the challenge many people face in talking about this is the emotions involved in considering a vaccine for children related to a sexually transmitted infection. There are a range of views on this."
Dr. Dunn hopes families can work past that. Ultimately, he just wants to keep women from getting cancer. "We want them protected against cervical cancer in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. That's what's important."
Should Boys Get the HPV Vaccine?
You'd be hard pressed these days to pick up a woman's magazine and not see full-page advertisements touting the HPV vaccine for boys. On a certain level, it makes sense, because men can infect women with the human papillomavirus as well as vice versa. So what should parents do?
While the CDC now says boys and men can receive the HPV vaccine, it does not yet recommend it — and neither does Group Health.
"The FDA is reviewing the studies looking at the safety and the rationale behind vaccinating boys, and they have not yet approved it," says Dr. Dunn.