Frequently Asked Questions About the Recently Approved HPV Vaccine

Posted on February 5th, 2009 by

Though the introduction of the Pap test in 1943 has greatly improved the early detection and thus treatment of cervical cancer for women in the United States, nearly 10,000 cases are still diagnosed each year in this country. Worldwide, an estimated 231,000 women die annually of cervical cancer.[1]Both domestic and international statistics prove that this disease remains a significant women’s health issue.

However, important progress has been made in the prevention of cervical cancer: research guided by the knowledge that virtually all cases of cervical cancer are linked with a common viral infection known as human papillomavirus (HPV) has contributed to the development of vaccines to prevent the infection.

One such preventive vaccine is Gardasil™ (developed by Merck), which was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in June 2006. Below are some frequently asked questions about Gardasil:

Will Gardasil™ treat existing HPV infections?

No. The vaccine is intended to prevent infection with specific types of HPV. It will not treat existing infections or cervical abnormalities.

Can I become infected with HPV by being vaccinated?

No. The vaccine does not contain live virus and cannot cause infection.

If I’m vaccinated, will I still need to be screened for cervical cancer?

Yes. The vaccine does not protect against all high-risk types of HPV.

Given that cervical cancer screening (Pap tests) has greatly reduced the occurrence of the disease, why is the vaccine so important?

In addition to reducing the risk of cervical cancer, the vaccine will reduce the risk of precancerous changes to the cervix known as cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN). High-grade CIN requires treatment follow-up, which causes anxiety and expense. The vaccine will also have a large impact in parts of the world where cervical cancer screening and follow-up are less available.

How long does protection with the vaccine last?

This is still uncertain. Longer follow-up of vaccinated individuals will provide more information about the duration of protection.

What are the target age groups for vaccination?

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends routine vaccination of girls ages 11 to 12 years. The vaccine can also be offered to girls as young as nine as well as girls and women between the ages of 13 and 26.

Is there any reason to vaccinate boys?

Although the vaccine is not yet licensed for use in boys, there would be definite advantages to the practice. Vaccinating boys would reduce transmission of the virus in the population and would also protect boys against HPV-related conditions such as genital warts and cancer of the penis or anus. The vaccine may be licensed for use in boys after more data become available.

Does the vaccine protect against all types of HPV?

No. Gardasil protects against HPV types 16 and 18, which are responsible for roughly 70 percent of all cervical cancer cases, and HPV types 6 and 11, which cause a majority of cases of genital warts.

How many doses of the vaccine are required?

The vaccine is given in three doses over a six-month period.

[1]. Sankaranarayanan R, Budukh AM, Rajkumar R. Effective screening programmes for cervical cancer in low- and middle-income developing countries. Bulletin of the World Health Organization. 2001;79:954-962.

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Tags: Cervical Cancer

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