By Sarah Cada, MD
Chair, Section on Women’s Health – Nebraska Medical Association
In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first ever vaccine to prevent cervical cancer. The HPV vaccine, formally known as Gardasil®, helps prevent cervical cancer, precancerous genital lesions and genital warts due to Human Papillomavirus (HPV) types 6, 11, 16 and 18. The approval of this vaccine was monumental considering cervical cancer is one of the most common and deadly cancers affecting women in the world and immunization can decrease a woman’s chance of getting cervical cancer by 70%. The vaccine is recombinant – meaning that it doesn’t contain a live virus – and is given in three injections over a six-month period.
You might be thinking to yourself that HPV only affects those that are promiscuous; however, as a physician I’ve found that HPV can affect almost anyone and its reach is widespread. If you’ve been sexually active, your chance of being exposed to the HPV virus is high. Let’s look at the numbers: according to the Centers for Disease Control approximately 20 million Americans are currently infected with HPV and an additional 6.2 million people will become infected this year.
Females who have had as little as two sexual partners have a 50% chance of exposure to the HPV virus and that percentage rises to 90% with three sexual partners. Further dispelling the myth that only the promiscuous contract HPV is that practicing physicians note cases where women who are virgins when they were married have contracted the disease from their non virgin husband. Unfortunately, at this time, there isn’t a test available for young men so there is no way to know if a male partner is carrying the virus. The risk continues to climb with the number of sexual partners, in fact, at least 80 percent of sexually active women will have been infected with HPV by the time they reach age 50.
The symptoms and physical signs of HPV can be treated, but there is no way to treat the actual viral infection. Some women’s immune systems will be able to fight the virus, but in others it may stay dormant for years and then appear much later to cause problems. Unfortunately, there are women with the HPV virus that will face physical symptoms that are resistant to treatment.
The HPV vaccine is currently approved and recommended for females age 9-26. As a parent, I know it’s scary to think about the recommendation that a child as young as 9 should receive the vaccine, but if you are like me, you err on the side of caution when it comes to your children. Studies have indicated that the nearly 25% of young women between the ages of 14 and 19 have already been infected. Early vaccination will help protect your daughter for a lifetime.
The time to prevent cervical cancer is now – ask your physician about the HPV vaccine Gardasil®. The vaccine doesn’t change morals; it simply helps protect the young women of our state from cervical cancer.