Teen vaccine can prevent cervical cancer

By Lea Thomas, MD

Now there’s a vaccine to prevent the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States – human papillomavirus – and in the process reduce the chance young women will develop cervical cancer. More than 20 million people in the U.S. currently are infected with HPV. Health agencies predict that at this current rate, at least 80 percent of women will have HPV by the time they are 50.

The virus causes no symptoms or health problems in most people, but HPV causes almost all cases of cervical cancer, which affected an estimated 10,370 women last year, killing about 3,710. It can also cause cancers of other sexual organs of both men and women. So young people should learn about the dangers of HPV before they become sexually active.

The virus, which is spread through sexual contact, sometimes causes warts, or papillomas. These benign tumors may take weeks, months or years to appear. Condoms do not completely safeguard against the virus.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved a vaccine for young women – called Gardasil – to protect them from HPV. Gardasil is given in a series of three injections to girls when they are 11 to 12 years old, but it can be given to girls as young as 9.

Women and girls ages 13 to 26 should also receive the vaccine. The vaccine should be administered before girls and women become sexually active, but those who have already been sexually active should still be vaccinated.

In tests, Gardasil was shown to be 99 percent effective in preventing the strains of HPV that are associated with cervical cancer. Young women should also be screened for cervical cancer with Pap tests at least once every 3 years, beginning about 3 years after they begin to have sexual intercourse, but no later than age 21. •••

For more information: see sexually transmitted diseases.

Dr. Thomas practices with CHKD Health System’s Newport News Pediatrics.