For the first time, a vaccine to prevent cancer is on the market.
It targets the human papillomavirus, or HPV. Cotton-O'Neil nurse practitioner Cindy Baird says high-risk types of HPV have been shown to cause 50 to 95 percent of invasive cervical cancers. That's why she calls the vaccine a breakthrough.
HPV is sexually transmitted. The vaccine doesn't cure infection that already exists, so the vaccine must be given before a person is sexually active. A government advisory panel Thursday recommended it be given to 11 and 12-year-old girls. It can also be given to girls as young as age nine at a doctor's discretion, and it's listed as a catch-up vaccine for women aged 13 to 26.
Baird says the young age may be shocking for some people, but she says statistics show many young people are sexually active. She says the public health community will be giving a careful message that multiple partner, high-risk sex still is not okay, but there is a tool that can prevent something that down the line can cause significant morbidity and mortality.
Cervical cancer is the second-most common cancer in women, with ten-thousand cases diagnosed in the U.S. every year. Baird says health officials will go on the offensive, spreading the message that even if a girl is not at risk for contracting HPV now, the vaccine could safe her life later on. She says the vaccine means an opportunity for prevention.
The vaccine is delivered in a series of three shots. The series costs about $300. Insurance coverage may vary, but an official with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas says the company does plan to cover it.
Baird says she expects the vaccine to be available through family doctors, so girls would not have to visit an OB/GYN. However, she also stresses the vaccine will not replace well-woman exams, including pap smears, for adults.
Another interesting note is that a strain of HPV is also what causes genital warts, and at least one form of the vaccine will cover that strain, so Baird says the shots wouldn't be out of the question for boys some day either.