By Kate Ayers
It has been called the biggest breakthrough in women’s health since the birth control pill. Others think of it as just another excuse for teens to have premarital sex. Whatever you call it, Gardasil, the new immunization for the human papillomavirus, or HPV, is now available.Certain strands of HPV may cause cervical cancer.
The virus, which affects 75 percent of all sexually active men and women, can also cause genital warts. Men can carry the virus but it is usually undetectable and only women develop the cervical cancer cells. Healthy immune systems can usually clear the virus on their own, but sometimes chemical treatments and antibiotics are required. In some cases, HPV develops abnormal cells on the cervix, which, if left untreated, can turn cancerous.
Both the Merck and GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceutical companies have developed a vaccine intended for young women before they become sexually active. The immunization, which is administered in three shots at $120 each over an 18-month period, has been proven to prevent the HPV 16 and 18 strains. While these two are the most common strains of HPV, they aren’t the only ones that can lead to cervical cancer.
Despite medical benefits, some are skeptical of the social implications of administering the immunization.
"If people are told, or if society gives the impression, that this is the shot that makes it safe to have sex, that would indeed be the wrong message," Ann Simmons, a correspondent for the Family Research Council (FRC) told City on a Hill Press via e-mail.
FRC is a Christian organization that claims it has "welcomed [the vaccine’s] development as a significant advance for public health." But, FRC also claims that its own position on this vaccine "has been seriously distorted" by the news media. Simmons went on to point out that "risk reduction strategies like an HPV vaccine, however valuable, should never be seen as a substitute for risk elimination strategies like abstinence and fidelity."
Even so, many health care professionals, such as Janet Brooks, continue to recommend the vaccine to female patients.
Brooks, a nurse practitioner at Tahoe Forest Women’s Center, is still cautious about administering the drug.
"With any vaccine that has a live virus, like the polio vaccine, you run the risk of giving the patient that disease," Brooks said.However, research shows Gardasil to trigger few side effects, especially when the women treated were under 30 and did not smoke-which fits the description of many UC Santa Cruz students.
Students may now receive the immunization from the UCSC Health Center.
School health insurance entitles students to $250 of "wellness benefits" and goes toward the student’s immunizations of choice. The insurance does not cover the total cost of the $360 immunization.
Sherry Sobin, nurse practitioner and patient care coordinator at the UCSC Health Center will wait to recommend the vaccine to students, though, because other companies are working on versions of the immunization that, Sobin says, promise to treat against more types of cervical cancer.
Because HPV can come and go in a woman’s body, Janet Brooks warns that "even if someone has an abnormal pap and it comes back HPV negative, it doesn’t mean they’ve never had HPV."
Though Gardasil can prevent up to 70 percent of cervical cancers and 90 percent of genital warts, healthcare professionals warn it is not a total cure.
With 20 million people already infected and 5.5 million expected to be infected by next year, there may still be a long way to go before HPV is a thing of the past.