The human papillomavirus, HPV, has become the most common STD in the United States; at least 50 percent of people who are sexually active will be infected with HPV, which can cause genital warts, cervical, vulvar, and vaginal cancers. HPV is responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancer, and each year, 10,000 women are expected to develop cervical cancer and approximately 4,000 will die from the disease.
HPV is even more devastating for Latinas, who suffer the highest incidence of cervical cancer among other ethnic groups as well as a significantly greater death rate.
HPV is transmitted through vaginal, oral, anal, and skin-to-skin contact. That means condoms can’t always prevent you from catching it. You could be at risk for HPV if you or your partner have had multiple short or long-term hook-ups.
In June, the Food and Drug Admini-stration approved Gardasil, a vaccine that is 95 to 100 percent effective in preventing two types of HPV. An advisory committee to the National Center for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that girls 11-12 years of age be routinely vaccinated. Although it is best to get the vaccine before you become sexually active, the CDC still recommends it for unvaccinated women between the ages of 13 and 26.
The $360 preventative comes in a series of three shots, administered at one, two, and six-month intervals. Gardasil works by mimicking the disease and building up resistance to the virus. Like most vaccines, it does not actually contain a live virus.
While Gardasil marks a significant advancement for women, studies testing the safety and effectiveness of a possible HPV vaccine for men are still underway; HPV is said to be linked to penile, anal, and head and neck cancers in males.
Gardasil marks a significant step forward for reproductive health, but the $360 price tag could put it out of reach for many young women. Gardasil’s manufacturer, Merck & Co., plans to introduce a free vaccine program for uninsured women this fall, but in the meantime it is up to individual states to make Gardasil easily available to low-income girls and women. If Texas, for instance, requires the vaccination for public schools, Medicaid and private insurers will cover the cost, and it will be available at Planned Parenthood of San Antonio and South Central Texas and other public-health clinics.
Unfortunately, Gardasil could become a political football. Some religious conservatives have opposed the regimen on the grounds that vaccinated women will be more likely to become sexually active at an early age. However, results from a survey of virgins, ages 15-19, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control & Preven-tion, reports that only 10 percent of boys and 7 percent of girls name fear of STDs as the reason they don’t have sex. If the vaccine is not mandatory, Planned Parenthood worries that insurers won’t cover the shots’ high cost.
Pap smears are still recommended for women who are sexually active even if they have received the Gardasil vaccine. If detected early enough, an HPV infection can be treated before cancer develops or advances significantly. Planned Parenthood does provide HPV screening as well as birth control and pregnancy testing; see Ppsctx.org for offices and hours. Contact your physician or GYN for more Gardasil information or assistance. Sources: Planned Parenthood of San Antonio and South Texas, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Associated Press