New vaccine protects young women against HPV, cervical cancer

Zoe Johnson ’08 received the first of three shots this summer, which she hopes will protect her against a major cause of cervical cancer, the second most common cause of cancer death in women worldwide. Cervical cancer kills almost 4,000 U.S. women annually.

The injection is Gardasil, a newly approved vaccine which targets four strains of human papillomavirus, the sexually transmitted virus responsible for genital warts and 70 percent of cervical cancers. Gardasil is FDA-approved for the prevention of cervical cancer, cervical pre-cancers, vulvar pre-cancers and vaginal pre-cancers caused by HPV types 16 and 18. The FDA also found Gardasil effective in the prevention of genital warts and low-grade cervical lesions.

“It’s like tetanus,” Johnson said. “I mean, you don’t think you’re going to go out and get tetanus tomorrow. It’s just better to be protected.”

Johnson’s mother, obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Meg Bates, said she recommends the vaccine to all of her patients within the age range of 9 to 26.
“It’s a good thing for all girls to get,” Bates said.

“I’m looking forward to the day when it’s approved for beyond the ages of 9 to 26, for boys and girls, men and women.”

Gardasil was approved in June by the FDA and is most effective when the recipient has not been exposed to the HPV strains it targets. Another cervical cancer vaccine, Cervarix, is available in other countries and has not yet been approved in the United States.

It has not yet been determined whether the vaccine is effective in preventing genital warts and anogenital cancers in men. While the vaccine does not treat active infection, it does innoculate people who have been exposed to any of the strains against the strains they are not infected with.

Beverly Hills pediatrician Dr. Peter Waldstein says there is no reason for girls not to get the vaccine and that protected sex between the first and the third shots is not forbidden. Waldstein is an adamant proponent of the vaccine.

According to the FDA, there are more than 100 strains of HPV, most of which cause no side effects and clear up on their own. Some high-risk types can lead to more serious problems and these for the most part have no symptoms in carriers.

High-risk types can lead to cell changes in the cervix which show up in an abnormal Pap test. Many of these changes have no consequences, but some, if left untreated, can lead to serious abnormalities and even cancer. Gardasil protects against strains six, 11, 16 and 18. The FDA reports that strains 16 and 18 cause 90 percent of genital warts.
HPV is not spread through the exchange of fluids, but rather through direct genital contact. Condoms provide some protection, but contact of skin outside the reach of a condom can spread the virus.

Gardasil is reported to be 100 percent effective. Tests show that the vaccine lasts at least four years, but because it is such a new drug, long-term results are unknown.
“It’s a very important step, and I’m hoping that young women get protected against this virus,” Dr. Eleanore Meyer, a physician in Santa Monica, said.

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