Protecting Girls From Cervical Cancer
Parents immunize their children against many diseases. Thanks to the availability of vaccines, epidemics such as polio and pertussis, or whooping cough, have been controlled and virtually eliminated.
The two vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration that protect from cervical cancer are Gardasil and Cervarix.
“These protect against infection from strains of the human papilloma virus, or HPV. HPV infections are the most common sexually transmitted infections in the United States,” said Scott Bergstedt, MD, ob/gyn with OBG-1 of West Calcasieu Cameron Hospital. “Virtually all cervical cancers are caused by HPV infections.”
Over 12,000 women in the United States are diagnosed each year with cervical cancer, and about 4,000 women die from it.
Cervical cancer is so devastating because it is often diagnosed when a woman is still young. She may be raising a family, or may not have even had children yet. It can make future fertility impossible. Even with treatment, cervical cancer is a leading cause of death in women.
Approved for 9- to 26-year-old girls and women, Gardasil was the first vaccine specifically designed to prevent cancer. Research shows it appears to be effective in protecting against four strains of HPV, but, there are over 100 different types of HPV. While the vaccine doesn’t protect against all of them, it does provide protection in preventing disease caused by these high-risk strains of HPV.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend the vaccine for girls between the ages of 11 and 12. “The vaccine is best given at a young age, before sexual activity begins and before exposure to HPV,” said Dr. Bergstedt. “Giving it early allows the body’s immune system to activate long before she may encounter HPV. Vaccination at this age also allows for the highest antibody levels; the higher the antibody levels, the greater the protection.” Girls and women ages 13 – 26 can receive a catch-up immunization, if desired.
The vaccine is given as a series of three injections over a six-month period. The second dose is given two months after the first dose, followed four months later by the third dose. To date, the most common complaint is soreness at the injection site, which is the upper arm; low-grade fever or flu-like symptoms may also occur. No one in the clinical trials discontinued the vaccination series because of side effects.
The vaccine is not an HPV cure, but it has been shown to provide protection for five years. Neither vaccine prevents disease in people already infected with the virus. “The vaccine only prevents infection. It does not prevent disease once infected with the virus.” For this reason, pap tests and annual examinations in young women should be continued, even after receiving the vaccination. “The cervical cancer vaccine isn’t intended to replace pap tests and routine pelvic exams,” he said.
The cervical cancer vaccine is part of the routine childhood vaccination schedule. At this time, each state decides if it is a requirement for school enrollment. But, the fact is that the greater number of girls and women vaccinated, the greater the decline in cervical cancer deaths.