HPV Vaccine

A vaccine for a virus that commonly causes cervical cancer is expected to be approved by the FDA soon. As Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports, the vaccine will be targeted toward pre-adolescent girls before they become sexually active.

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Genital HPV infection is a sexually transmitted disease caused by the human pappilomavirus. It's estimated by the Centers for Disease Control that at least half of sexually active people in the U.S. contract HPV at some point in their lives. Most HPV infections don't involve symptoms and clear up without treatment. But some strains of HPV are the leading cause of cervical cancer. The FDA is expected to approve an HPV vaccine as early as this week. Dr. John Schiller, with the National Cancer Institute, is one of the inventors of the vaccine. Schiller and the National Network for Immunization Information based at UTMB Galveston are hoping to get widespread acceptance of the vaccine.

"We believe that the vaccine works primarily by generating large amounts of antibodies against the surface of the virus. Then these antibodies bind to the virus and prevent it infecting. And so this vaccine is a preventative vaccine, a prophylactic vaccine."

Merck developed the vaccine, known as Gardasil, for use in girls as young as nine. Schiller says the primary target age is 10-14, although it could eventually be administered to older girls and women.

"Because genital HPV infection often occurs soon after initiating sexual activity because of how common the virus is, and because the vaccine is designed to prevent infection and not treat it, we really think that the vaccine is going to be most effective if used prior to the onset of sexual debut."

The vaccine requires an initial injection with two boosters over a six month period. Research suggests it's effective for five or six years before another booster is required. Dr. Jessica Kahn is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati.

"Initially when we start vaccinating girls against HPV, we may not see a dramatic reduction in the rate of abnormal pap tests. And it's going to take, of course, decades to detect an impact of HPV infection on cervical cancer because it does take years to decades to develop."

Critics of the vaccine say it may promote risky sexual behavior by providing a sense of immunity. Some groups are also concerned over the focus on young girls, saying the vaccination implies that early sexual activity is normal and acceptable. Laurie Johnson Houston Public Radio News.

Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...