Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the state of Kentucky, and many cancers cannot be prevented or cured. However, there is one cancer that can now be prevented by a simple vaccine. The vaccine, Gardasil, helps protect against diseases caused by four types of human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. The vaccine can prevent 70 percent of cervical cancer cases and 90 percent of genital warts. If you knew you could lessen your daughter’s chances of developing cervical cancer, would you do it?
Approximately 20 million people are currently infected with HPV. At least 50 percent of sexually active men and women acquire genital HPV infection at some point in their lives. By age 50, at least 80 percent of women will have acquired genital HPV infection. About 6.2 million Americans get a new genital HPV infection each year. While most HPV infections go away on their own, persistent infections can lead to cancer. More than 3,500 women die of cervical cancer each year in the United States.
These are sobering statistics for sure. Even more alarming, most HPV infections have no signs or symptoms; therefore, most infected persons are unaware they are infected, yet they can transmit the virus to a sex partner.
Target age for vaccine
Recently approved by the FDA, Gardasil protects young women from two strains of HPV that cause 70% of cervical cancer and two strains that cause 90% of genital warts. Gardasil is approved for girls and women 9 to 26 years of age, before they become sexually active and exposed to the virus. The recommended age to receive the vaccine is age 11 to 12, with catch-up for older girls who missed the vaccine earlier. Approximately 25 percent of ninth-graders have had sexual intercourse, which increases to nearly 60 percent for 12th-graders.
Dr. Diane Davey, professor and vice chairman for education at the University of Kentucky Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, says that getting girls vaccinated in the targeted age groups will be one of the best ways to protect them from this deadly disease.
“The vaccine is made of virus-like particles, not dead or live virus, so it is very safe,” Davey says. “It has minimal side effects, similar to those seen with other childhood vaccinations.”
Pap smears still necessary
Davey also says it is important to remember that, while the vaccine should prevent almost 70 percent of cervical cancer cases, it doesn’t protect against some types of HPV that can cause disease. Women should still be screened for cancer and pre-cancers and get regular Pap tests. Regular Pap testing and careful medical follow-up, with treatment if necessary, can help ensure that pre-cancerous changes in the cervix caused by HPV infection do not develop into life-threatening cervical cancer.
The only sure way to prevent genital HPV is sexual abstinence. Condoms may help but are not completely protective. The risk can be lowered by being in a mutually faithful relationship with someone who has had no or few sex partners. Otherwise, you should limit the number of partners you have and choose your partners carefully. The fewer the partners your own partner has had, the less likely he or she is to have HPV.
HPV shots information
Talk with your child’s pediatrician or your primary care physician if you have questions, go online to www.ukhealthcare.uky.edu, or call UK Health Connections at (800) 333-8874.
The vaccine, which requires three injections, is covered by most insurance companies and is included in the federal vaccines for children program, but those interested are encouraged to check with their individual insurance company concerning co-pays or cost.
For HPV vaccination appointments, call your primary care provider. Appointments can also be scheduled at UK Pediatrics at (859) 323-5481, Family Practice at (859) 323-6711, or Kentucky Clinic North at (859) 257-8801.
HOW IS THE GARDASIL VACCINATION GIVEN?
Gardasil is given as an injection in three doses. Ideally, the doses are given as follows:
• First dose: at a date you and your health care professional choose.
• Second dose: 2 months after the first dose.
• Third dose: 6 months after the first dose.