A vaccine that prevents cancer seemed more like science fiction than science a mere generation ago, but today, it’s a reality for cervical cancer.
The vaccines Gardasil and Cervarix protect men and women from HPV, or human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease that causes specific cancers, including cervical cancer, the 12th most commonly diagnosed cancer in Georgia and South Carolina. An estimated 80 percent of American adults currently harbor the virus, which also can cause precancers and genital warts.
Cervarix is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to protect against cervical cancer caused by HPV types 16 and 18. Gardasil has been approved to prevent:
• cervical cancer and some vulvar and vaginal cancers caused by HPV types 16 and 18;
• anal cancer caused by these same strains in men and women;
• genital warts from HPV types 6 and 11 in men and women.
THESE VACCINES also may protect against certain head and neck cancers and penile cancers caused by the HPV virus.
The recommended vaccine age is 11 or 12, although the window is from ages 9 to 26. While some may feel that is too early for a vaccine for a sexually transmitted disease, vaccination should precede sexual contact.
Most private insurers cover the cost of these vaccines. They also are covered by the federal Vaccines for Children program, which provides free vaccinations to uninsured or under-insured youths.
Our own Daron Ferris of the Georgia Health Sciences University HPV Prevention Program took part in nationwide studies on Gardasil before it was approved by the FDA. Thanks in large part to this research, we know the vaccine prevents up to 70 percent of all cases of cervical cancer, and up to 90 percent of all cases of genital warts – and we hope to do better still. Dr. Ferris’ team, which oversees one of the most comprehensive HPV research efforts in the world, is working to prevent more cases of HPV-related cancer, improve diagnosis and treatment, and identify new cancers that these vaccines can help prevent.
BUT NO VACCINE is effective if those eligible choose not to get it.
The thousands of patients diagnosed with cancer each day in our country likely would leap at the chance to turn back time and take advantage of a vaccine that could prevent their disease. We are working on these new therapies for those already diagnosed, but the HPV vaccine – along with safe sex – is a sure way to prevent most cancers caused by HPV. We are incredibly fortunate to have the choice to be vaccinated against HPV-related cancers. We hope you make that choice.
(The writer is director of the Georgia Health Sciences University Cancer Center, and has more than 22 years’ experience in cancer research and treatment, including in the Cancer Vaccine Section at the National Cancer Institute.)