August 15, 2006
Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)
Dr. Erik Steele
First, the bad news: Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is the virus that causes cervical cancer, abnormal pap smears, and a lot of misery for women. It is the virus that causes venereal warts, too, and at some point or another almost half of all Americans will be infected by HPV. It is the most common of all the sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Now the good news: there is finally a vaccine for women against HPV. Given consistently it could prevent the 3,000 cervical cancer deaths each year in this country, untold abnormal pap smears that require treatment including surgery, and a lot of that annual pap smear misery that is part of the lot of being female.
The three-part vaccine should be available sometime in the next few months, as it has just been approved by the FDA. It’s maker, Merck Pharmaceutical, has not said exactly when the vaccine will be available to the public, but there will be lots of media attention when it does become available, so keep an eye on the headlines and you are bound to catch the news. At this point it will be given to women over the age of 16 who want the vaccine, even though experts are recommending that doctors start vaccinating girls at age 12. That’s because there is some controversy about vaccinating girls against an STD before they are sexually active.
What’s not controversial, however, is that the vaccine seems to be extremely effective at least for several years against the most common forms of HPV (HPV is like flu and other virus – it has several different subtypes), including those that cause most cases of venereal warts and virtually all cases of cervical cancer. It is not quite clear, however, how long the vaccine is effective, since volunteers who have gotten it are still being followed to see how long the protective effect of the vaccine lasts. However, most people who get HPV get it as teenagers or young adults, so that is when protection is most important.
Will the HPV vaccine mean women won’t have to get that wonderful, annual pap smear? Welllll? At this point the answer is no, experts are not willing to let women off the pap hook just yet. If, however, women are vaccinated early – meaning before onset of sexual activity – and the amount of HPV around is dramatically decreased when the vaccine has been around a while, and the number of women with abnormal pap smears has gone way down, those experts must just change their minds. Until then, women between the ages of 16 and about thirty should get their paps, and the new vaccine when it becomes available.