Condoms: mankind’s best friend in a wrapper smaller than the palm of your hand, our defender from HIV and unwanted rugrats, and available in more flavors than a Baskin Robbin’s display case. They’ve served our species well, but as Human papillomavirus (HPV) awareness grows, it is becoming clear that a little slip of latex isn’t going to solve all our problems.
Enter Gardasil, the first HPV vaccine. HPV, a virus contracted by genital contact (with or without condoms) that is responsible for most cervical cancers and 90 percent of genital warts, affects nearly 10,000 women nationally and kills more than a third of them.
Though there at least 120 strains of the virus, Types 16 and 12 are the ones that most commonly cause cervical cancer. If administered before a woman becomes sexually active, Gardasil is highly effective at preventing the four most common types of HPV. Even if administered to college-aged women with an existing type of HPV it can still prevent the other three types from forming. Available for purchase as of last summer, and currently available at the UC Santa Cruz health center, the vaccine sent a wave of relief over women and concerned parents worldwide.
If only purchase wasn’t the key word of that sentence.
At $120 per shot in a series of three, spread out over a period of six months, the drug is the most expensive vaccine in existence, and costs more than all other child vaccines combined. With additional medical costs, UCSC Patient Coordinator Sheri Sobin estimates the cost to be closer to $145 per shot. And one time isn’t enough: the vaccine has a minimum shelf life of about four and a half years. Though the benefits far outweigh the price, for many impoverished high-risk women, it’s just not an option. And that’s just not good enough.
Sobin highly recommends the vaccine but is concerned about the price. "The main message is that it’s expensive," Sobin said. "There will be limits in terms of ‘will this be a worldwide vaccine?’ I think it’s going to be damn hard to get this out to places in Africa…it’s just not going to happen."
Though Gardasil prevents four types of HPV, this leaves another 26 strands of the virus to account for. Cervarix, another vaccine, will undergo review in early 2007 and will help to attack some of the remaining types. But at what price? What about the thousands of young people who aren’t quite eligible for federal insurance, but don’t have the private insurance to cover a vaccine for a virus many people remain oblivious to?
The knowledge is spreading, however biased the information may be. Chances are, you’ve seen the "Tell Someone" ads, sponsored by Gardasil’s manufacturers Merck & Co., on TV. There are a lot like them, (I like to call them "girlfriend ads"), where fresh-faced young women stare into the camera and confide in their best sleepover whispers, the way to eradicate cramps, bad skin, and excess pounds. But like cramps, bad skin, and fat, HPV isn’t going to be eliminated as easily or cheaply as manufacturers would have you to believe.