It was a big day for women's health care. On Thursday, June 8, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave the OK to the first vaccine to prevent most cervical cancers [Newscity, "The Path to a Cure," April 13-19]. Here are the basics:
What causes cervical cancer?
The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) causes 99.7 percent of cervical cancer cases. There are about 100 strains of HPV, and it is the most common sexually transmitted infection. The virus usually has only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. At least 80 percent of women will get a genital HPV infection by the time they're 50, according to the Center for Disease Control's website. It is transmitted via skin-to-skin contact, so condoms offer only moderate protection against the virus, because they only protect the area they cover.
How does the vaccine work?
Gardasil, the vaccine approved by the FDA, protects women against HPV types 16 and 18, which cause about 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. The vaccine is a synthetic shell in the shape of the virus that tricks the body into developing antibodies. Unlike other vaccines, the HPV vaccine does not carry the virus' nucleic acid or DNA, so there's no way to get HPV from the vaccine.
How is it administered?
The HPV vaccine is given to women as three shots over the course of six months. Merck, the company that makes Gardasil, recommends that the second dose be given two months after the first and the third injection six months after the first, according to the company's website.
When should people be vaccinated?
It is best for women to be immunized before they begin having sex, given that HPV is so common among sexually active people. Gardasil was approved for use in women age 9 to 26. It is so far known to be effective for at least three-and-a-half years, though a booster shot may be later required. Cervarix, a similar vaccine made by competitor GlaxoSmithKline, was shown to be effective in women age 26 to 55, the company announced Monday. According to its website, it will apply for FDA review of Cervarix later this year.
How much does it cost?
Merck is selling Gardasil for $120 per dose, and three are required. Luckily, New Mexico is a universal state, which means vaccines are free for children, according to Deborah Busemeyer, spokesperson for the state's Department of Health.
When can we get it?
Gardasil can be ordered now by medical professionals, but it's still not clear when it will be distributed. The federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will meet on June 29 to look at whether the vaccine should be added to the usual regimen of vaccinations. Then the National Vaccine for Children Program also has to approve it, Busemeyer says. It's too early to tell when New Mexico will see the vaccine, she adds, but the Department of Health considers it a priority.