HPV Vaccine for Cervical Cancer
Gema Fernandez, MD is an OB/GYN on staff at Banner Estrella Medical Center. Her office can be reached at (623) 936-1780.
Question: I’m trying to determine whether my teenage daughter should receive the HPV vaccine to help prevent cervical cancer. Since it’s a new vaccine, I’m concerned about its safety. What risks should I be aware of?
Answer: As parents, it is our responsibility to ensure the health and safety of our children. Despite controversy, vaccines play an important role in keeping our kids healthy. Gardasil is a relatively new human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine that protects girls and young women from cervical cancer and more.
Developed by Merck & Co., Gardasil was introduced in 2006 as a vaccine for girls and women ages 9 to 26. While there are literally hundreds of types of HPV known to cause everything from warts to cancer, the vaccine specifically protects against HPV types 6 and 11, which cause about 90 percent of genital warts, and types 16 and 18, which cause about 70 percent of cervical cancer cases.
Because HPV is linked to cervical cancer and is sexually transmitted, it is a potentially life-threatening STD. Even a young woman who is sexually responsible with only one lifetime partner is at risk for HPV if her partner was previously exposed to HPV with only one other sexual partner. Since the goal is to protect young women before they become sexually active, Gardasil is recommended for girls as young as 9. However, young women who are already sexually active or have even had abnormal pap smears are still encouraged to receive the vaccine since it may still protect them from all or a few of the four types of HPV in the vaccine.
As with other vaccines, rigorous studies and clinical trials have been instituted to prove both the safety and efficacy of Gardasil. These studies have shown that, in addition to preventing cervical cancer, Gardasil also prevents vulvar cancer and vaginal cancer, which are also believed to be caused by HPV.
To further ensure the vaccine’s safety, the CDC maintains an ongoing reporting system dedicated to Gardasil. CDC data show that 94 percent of the side effects reported have not been life threatening and range from pain and swelling at the injection site to fevers – similar side effects of other vaccines. Of the few serious side effects that have been reported to the CDC, none have been directly linked to the vaccine.
The American Cancer Society, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Academy of Pediatrics and other major medical organizations all recommend Gardasil. Consult with your family physician, pediatrician or gynecologist to determine if Gardasil is right for you or your daughter. Women who are pregnant or whose immune systems are suppressed should wait to be vaccinated.
Since Gardasil cannot prevent all types of cervical cancers, women should continue routine cervical cancer screening even if they receive the vaccine.