The commercials have been on the air for months – “Cancer caused by a virus? I didn’t know that.” Merck, a pharmaceutical company, is using these ads to urge women to tell someone about the sexually transmitted disease HPV, or the human papilloma virus, causing cervical cancer. But why does HPV suddenly seem to be the hot health topic?
This summer, the Federal Drug Administration licensed Gardasil, a vaccine that prevents women from getting four types of HPV that can lead to cancer or genital warts. Student Health Services started carrying it this fall, clinical program coordinator Susan Haney said. The disease infects about 6.2 million people across the country.
“I think it’s really fortunate that there is a vaccine that can help prevent cervical cancer,” she said. “Anytime you can get protected by vaccination that is the route you should take.”
The new vaccine – available to women ages 9 to 26 – protects against four of about 40 types of HPV, but these four are responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancer cases and 90 percent of incidents of genital warts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And while most female students don’t have cervical cancer on the brain, studies show that HPV is most common in high school and college-aged students – those who are in their late teens and early 20s – and at least 50 percent of sexually active people will get HPV at some time in their lives, according to the CDC.
Even men are carriers, though they aren’t vulnerable to its effects. Haney said the vaccine is only available for women right now, but said that could change in the future.
“A lot of people don’t realize how much of the population might have the disease,” Haney said. “Most types don’t cause cancer, so there shouldn’t be a lot of concern, but certain types do cause cervical cancer and that’s a very serious disease.”
The main problem surrounding HPV is that it has no identifiable symptoms, so it’s hard to detect. Gynecologists usually discover the disease in a patient after their yearly pap smear comes back irregular. Many forms of HPV clear up on their own in women and those who receive the HPV vaccine must still get regular pap smears since the vaccine does not protect against all forms of the virus, Haney said.
Aside from still having to get tested for the virus yearly, another downfall of the vaccine – a series of three shots – is that students have to break out the big bucks to get it.
Student Health charges $360 for the shots and the average price across the U.S. is between $300 and $500. Haney said students should first check with their primary care physician and insurance company to see about offsetting the cost.
Women should ideally get the vaccine before they become sexually active because there is no chance they already have contracted HPV, Haney said.
But women who are having sex already shouldn’t panic – the vaccine is still recommended even if a woman is sexually active or has already been exposed to one or two types of HPV because it’s unlikely she would be infected by all four cancer-causing types covered by the vaccine.
Haney said that GW decided to start carrying the vaccine because over the summer Student Health started getting calls from concerned parents and students, probably because of HPV’s higher visibility since the vaccine came out.
She said, “Females on campus should give it serious consideration.”
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