the world’s first-ever cancer vaccine is generating great excitement. The new vaccine, which prevents cervical cancer by protecting women from the human papillomavirus (HPV), is now available in Thailand and many other countries. Here’s a look at the important questions being asked about this exciting medical breakthrough against one of the most dangerous cancers among women.
WHAT IS HPV?
There are over 100 types of HPV, a type of virus that can infect many parts of the body. Some types of HPV are sexually transmitted and can cause cervical cancer in women and anal or penile cancer in men. Up to 80% of women will become infected with HPV at some point in their lives. Less-harmful HPV strains are categorized as ‘low risk’, while the cancer-causing strains are ‘high risk’. Condoms have been shown to minimize (but not eliminate) the risk of sexually-transmitted infection.
HOW DOES THE VACCINES WORK?
The vaccine protects against two high-risk HPV strains that have been linked to 70% of cervical cancer cases. It also protects against two low-risk strains that are responsible for 90% of genital warts. The vaccine given in three doses over a 6-month period works by blocking the four HPV strains, with studies showing them to be highly effective, providing up to 100% protection.
WHO SHOULD GET THE CERVICAL CANCER VACCINE?
The US and Canada are promoting the widespread use of the vaccine; government guidelines recommend that most females from 9 to 26 years of age receive the vaccine. The aim is to administer the vaccination before a female becomes sexually active, but even those already sexually active can still benefit from the vaccine if they are not already infected.
IS THE VACCINE SAFE?
Yes. Recent studies showed few side-effects among study participants, with the most common side-effect being soreness from the injection. More importantly, you cannot contract HPV from receiving the vaccine. Pregnant women, and those with allergies to any of the vaccine’s ingredients, should not receive the vaccine. The vaccine has been highly effective in preventing infection from the four HPV strains mentioned above. Even better, women infected with one strain can still receive the vaccine to prevent them from catching any of the others.
HOW LONG DOES THE PROTECTION LAST?
Recent studies show the vaccine provides at least four years of protection against HPV. Ongoing research will help determine whether further vaccination is needed beyond the four-year mark.
DO VACCINATED WOMEN AND GIRLS STILL NEED CERVICAL CANCER SCREENING?
Yes. The vaccine protects against some but not all types of HPV that cause cervical cancer and genital warts, and not all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. So it’s still possible for those who’ve been vaccinated to contract a different HPV strain, and they remain at risk of contracting cervical cancer not caused by HPV
. Vaccinated women should still continue receiving regular Pap smear tests
and other screenings as recommended by their doctors. The new vaccine represents one of the most important milestones in cancer prevention. Be sure to consult your doctor to discuss the best course of action for you or your daughter.