Children as young as 10 may soon have access to an experimental vaccine against the most common sexually transmitted disease, a virus that can cause genital warts and cancer.
Medical College of Georgia researcher Daron G. Ferris said the new "quadrivalent" vaccine is designed to protect against four strains of the human papillomavirus. Two of those strains, types 16 and 18, are responsible for at least half of all cervical cancers, which is the second leading cause of cancer death in women worldwide, Dr. Ferris said.
In another study involving MCG that began three years ago and sought to prevent just one cancer-causing strain, none of the women who got the vaccine got HPV, Dr. Ferris said.
"If we can prevent the acquisition of HPV, which is the initial step in the development of cervical cancer, then we've saved women's lives by doing so," said Dr. Ferris, a family medicine physician and director of the Gynecologic Cancer Prevention Center.
The vaccine in the study also will include the two strains of the virus most likely to cause genital warts. That may make it more appealing to young people than will its ability to prevent cancer, Dr. Ferris said. Part of the study is seeking to enroll girls ages 16-23.
"Young patients are more annoyed with developing genital warts because it inhibits their behavior, it is distressing," Dr. Ferris said. "Young adolescents aren't really concerned about dying."
The virus is not well-known yet, but it has a startling prevalence worldwide, Dr. Ferris said. Twenty to 40 percent of the sexually active population may be infected at one time, and some theorize that as many as 80 percent will contract the virus at some time during their lives.
Officials hope this fact may help persuade some parents to take part in another aspect of the study, which seeks to vaccinate girls and boys ages 10 to 15. The investigators were seeking to get to children before they become sexually active, which is now probably around ages 14-16, Dr. Ferris said.
"That sounds about right," said Donna Scott, who oversees the Teen Health Hangout for the Richmond County Health Department.
Those kinds of issues tend to provoke strong reactions from parents and will need to be explained carefully to them, said Allan Josephson, the chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at MCG.
"That's how people may start to think about it, in terms of current or immediate activity, rather than protection into the future," Dr. Josephson said.
But given the widespread nature of HPV, "why risk exposing that child to a potentially lethal viral infection when we have a vaccine that certainly can prevent acquisition?" Dr. Ferris said.
If parents can see that benefit, "I would think they would get the vaccine," Ms. Scott said.
The Medical College of Georgia is conducting clinical trials on a vaccine to prevent infection by certain strains of the human papillomavirus. One part of the study is for girls ages 16-23 who have not had HPV or an abnormal Pap smear. Another part of the study is for boys and girls ages 10-15.
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