New Vaccine for Preteen/Teen Girls
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that there are 6 million new cases of human papillomavirus (HPV) each year -- many of them in teens and young adults. A vaccine to prevent HPV (Gardasil) is now available. How safe is it? Nancy Brown answers questions you may have about the new vaccine.
What is HPV?
HPV is the most common STD in the United States. HPV is a virus that can cause warts on any area of skin or mucous membrane, including the mouth or genital area.
How is HPV transmitted?
Though HPV is classified as an STD, it can actually be transmitted through any skin-to-skin contact between an infected and non-infected person, not just through sexual contact. Studies are looking at whether HPV can be also transmitted through indirect contact, such as sharing underwear or towels. HPV can be transmitted even if the person with HPV does not have any symptoms (such as warts). Besides abstinence, condom use can assist in prevention. In women, regular Pap smears can detect the virus early. Early detection is important to prevent cancer.
What are genital warts?
Genital warts are small raised areas of skin on the anus or genitals, which can cause itching and irritation. Warts can appear in small groups or in random patterns. Some people say they look like cauliflower. Genital warts may also be flat and nearly invisible, and women can even experience them internally. They pass very easily from person to person.
How can HPV be treated?
There is no cure for HPV, so treatments focus on getting rid of the symptom: warts. People who think they may have HPV should see a doctor as soon as possible. Many types of HPV can have serious consequences if left untreated (see "Can HPV cause cancer?" below). Treatment options include creams, surgical procedures and medications that help the immune system fight the HPV infection.
Can HPV cause cancer?
If left untreated, some types of HPV can cause cancer. Other types of HPV, such as those that cause genital warts, can also cause cervical cancer if the warts are not treated. Cervical cancer kills more women every year than any other cancer. About .01 percent (1 in 10,000) of HPV infections in women lead to cervical cancer. The good news is that having regular Pap smears can help detect genital warts, precancerous changes or cervical cancer in the early stages when these can be treated effectively.
What about the vaccine?
In 2006, the FDA licensed the Gardasil HPV vaccine to prevent cervical cancer and other diseases in females. Since HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer in women, the CDC recommends that girls 11 to 12 years of age be vaccinated (with three doses). However, it can be given to girls between 9 and 26 years of age.
The idea is to vaccinate girls before they become sexually active, but all sexually active women should receive the vaccination, too. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States and is the most common in people in their teens and 20s.
The vaccine, which has been tested with thousands of women and is considered effective without serious side effects, is given in three injections over a six-month period. Most insurance companies cover the vaccinations.
Reprinted with the permission of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. 2008 Palo Alto Medical Foundation. All rights reserved.
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