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HPV vaccine and cervical cancer: Is this the new magic bullet?

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contributed by Susan L. Daron, R.N., B.S.N., O.C.N., Cancer AnswerLine nurse

One of the most recommended screenings is for cervical cancer. Most cervical cancers are caused by the sexually transmitted infection human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV immunization could reduce the impact of cervical cancer worldwide by as much as two-thirds, if all adolescent and adult women were to get the vaccine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta (CDC), there is no evidence to suggest that HPV vaccine loses the ability to provide protection over time.

Currently there are two vaccines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, that prevent infection from HPV, the most common cause of cervical cancer. Gardasil and Cervarix both are highly effective in preventing infection with the types of HPV they target. Gardasil targets the two HPV types that cause 90% of genital warts and it is used to prevent cancers and precancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, and anus. Cervarix is used for the prevention of cervical cancer and precancers.

The CDC recommends that all women age 26 years and younger receive three doses of the HPV vaccine (Cervarix or Gardasil). The HPV vaccines are safe and there is a lot of experience with its use; thus far, no serious side effects have been shown to be caused by the vaccines. Overall these vaccines can reduce the need for medical care, biopsies, and invasive procedures associated with follow-up from abnormal Pap tests. The FDA also states that “this vaccine is nearly 100% effective.” In the short term, the HPV vaccine protects against genital warts, one of the most common types of sexually transmitted infection. In the long term, the vaccine prevents development of cervical cancer in females and anal cancer in both women and men.

This raises the question: Are the people receiving this vaccine educated about the need for continued surveillance and routine pap tests? The decision for vaccination is a personal choice, and boys and girls under the age of 18 should be counseled by their parents and pediatrician before receiving this vaccine. I personally think that these teenagers should be offered sex education along with additional information about the HPV virus and risks associated with this virus, like cervical cancer. These adolescent girls should also be educated about the safety and benefits of an annual pelvic exam, once they are sexually active, whether or not they have been vaccinated.

While this vaccination will help to reduce health care costs and anxieties, it is important to remember that they still do not protect against all HPV infections that cause cervical cancer. Young women who are vaccinated should continue to undergo cervical cancer screening as part of their health care routine.

Still have questions? Call the nurses at the University of Michigan Cancer AnswerLine. They can help patients or their loved ones find a clinical trial or provide insights into the newest and latest cancer treatments. Feel free to call at 1-800-865-1125 or send an email.

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