A new vaccine promises to help make cervical cancer a thing of the past and is available to Mills women at the Tang Medical Center in Berkeley.
The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, approved by the FDA on June 8, 2006, is the first vaccine with the ability to reduce the possibility of cancer. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends the vaccine to all women and girls ages 9 to 26. Administered in three doses, the vaccine blocks two types of HPV infections that account for about 70 percent of cervical cancer cases.
The HPV vaccine, named Gardasil by manufacturer Merck Pharmaceuticals, also blocks infection by two other types of HPV that cause about 90 percent of genital warts cases. Spread by skin-to-skin contact, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, affecting over half of all sexually active individuals at some point in their lives. Most people are not aware of the infection. In many cases, the immune system is able to clear the infection within one to two years, but according to the Tang Center, persistent infection with certain types of HPV is a risk factor for the development of cervical cancer.
“There are many strains of HPV, but the vaccine is very beneficial to prevention of cervical cancer in the strains out there. We are very happy that this is now available for students up to 26 years old,” said Mills’ Health Program director Cynthia Turner.
According to the Tang Center’s Web site, approximately 4,000 women die from cervical cancer each year in the United States, and another 9,500 are diagnosed.
Since the common HPV virus causes most cases of cervical cancer, the best way to prevent the disease is by avoiding HPV, says the American Cancer Society.
HPV can be contracted through any kind of sexual activity involving genital contact, not just sexual intercourse, according to a Web site for Merck Pharmaceuticals.
“Gardasil is a promising step toward significantly reducing HPV related infection and disease,” the Tang Center Web site says.
“Consistent condom use is an important component in the prevention of HPV and other sexually transmitted infections.” Condom use reduced 70 percent of HPV infections in a recent study, as stated by the American Cancer Society.
Health care professionals widely stress the importance of regular gynecological exams for all women. Pap smear exams test cells from a woman’s cervix for cancerous or precancerous cells, and for other sexually transmitted infections as well.
The CDC recommends the vaccination for women and girls before they have been exposed to HPV. However, women who are already sexually active can still receive the vaccine for immunization against the HPV types that they have not yet been exposed to. Very few women are infected with all four HPV types covered by the vaccine.
Turner said, “We have two medical clinicians coming to the Health Fair, and I will ask them to bring the new patient handouts on HPV, and students can ask the staff nurses questions about any health issue.”
When asked, many Mills women were unaware of HPV and cancer consequences. “Most people are extremely uninformed about HPV and other STIs until they are infected,” said freshwoman Alice Hallaman. “Vaccinating girls could lead them to believe they were more protected and needed to be less safe. I still believe the vaccine is an important option for young girls because it can protect and instruct on the dangers of HPV.”
Because of the lack of awareness surrounding HPV, many people are quick to make assumptions about those afflicted. Student “Mary Mills,” who asked to remain anonymous, had practiced safe sex and still contracted the disease. When she talked to other women about contracting HPV, some “were very insensitive and insinuated I must’ve been a slut or didn’t practice safe sex. One person said I was selfish and dangerous to be in a relationship that included sex after I was diagnosed with HPV,” even though she had been upfront with her partner.
The potential for protection from HPV and HPV-related cervical cancer is so compelling that the Michigan State Senate has already approved a controversial bill that would require all girls entering sixth grade to receive the vaccine. It will be debated in the State House after November elections. In Colorado, before making it mandatory, lawmakers are researching funding to make the vaccine more affordable for everyone.
The HPV vaccine is available through the Tang Center at the Allergy, Travel and Immunization clinic. SHIP insurance covers 80 percent of the cost of the vaccine, which is $135 a dose. But all Mills students, regardless of their insurance plan, can use the Tang Center and bill their insurance company for reimbursement, Turner said. To make an appointment at the Tang Center, call (510) 643-7177.