One Less

One less. You too can be one-less. Join us! Fatten the pockets of Merck and protect yourself from cervical cancer all in one go. Hop on the HPV vaccine band wagon. Everyone is doing it, why not you, too? Well, for one, if you are sexually active it is already too late for the vaccine to do you any good. But that is not something you’ll learn in the commercials.

Gardasil (the Merck HPV vaccine) protects against the two types of HPV that cause 70% of cervical cancer (types 16 and 18) and the two types that cause most genital warts (types 6 and 11). This I am sure you probably know if you have ever lent half an ear to the commercials. However, the vaccine is not for everyone.

HPV (human papilloma virus) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States; there are over thirty known types of HPV that can be transmitted sexually. Research shows the HPV vaccine to be most effective when administered before sexual activity. Exposure to HPV infection prior to receiving the vaccine reduces the vaccine’s effectiveness. So while the vaccine has been approved for women and girls between the ages of 9 and 27, it is recommended by the Centers for Disease Communication (CDC) for girls between the ages of 11 and 12, prior to the average age of sexual initiation.

Just in case I haven’t been clear, if you have had sex of any flavor that involved the exchange of bodily fluids, it is highly likely that given the prevalence, you have been exposed to HPV; ergo the HPV vaccine would be a painful, costly experience, but not an effective cervical cancer prevention measure. Couple this with the fact that there is no existing research to show long-term safety or efficacy for the vaccine and its miracle benefits seem a bit more tarnished than the commercials would have us believe. Most vaccines spend long years in testing stages before they become mandated requirements by public health officials. So why the super speedy process with the HPV vaccine? Is cervical cancer that much more devastating than polio or measles? Corporate profit does not a safe vaccine make. The HPV vaccine shouldn’t get special treatment due to the influence of corporate profit or the political agendas of abstinence-only conservatives.

Most HPV is actually harmless and the vast majority of women with HPV never develop cervical cancer, but instead clear the virus on their own. In cases where a woman is infected with a type of HPV that could potentially cause cervical cancer most cervical cancers develop slowly over many years. For this reason, regular screenings with Pap tests for early detection have been particularly effective in lowering women’s risk of dying from cervical cancer. For women over thirty the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of an HPV test as part of routine screening. Unfortunately, techniques such as the HPV test are new on the market and haven’t been shown to be better at finding invasive cancer or serious precancerous conditions than standard Pap smears.

New technologies like HPV tests and vaccines are wonderful additions to our prevention tool kit, but until research studies show they are effective and safe over long periods of time it may be best to rely on the tried and true. Pap smears and condoms don’t completely eliminate risk, but they do provide a good measure of protection and certainly don’t sell false assurances of safety delivered in catchy commercials.

Ms. Skeptical

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