The cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil has become a celebrity of sorts: Never before has a vaccine existed to protect people from any form of cancer. But will it benefit you?
The vaccine protects against human papillomavirus (HPV) types 16 and 18, which are responsible for about 70 percent of cervical cancer cases, as well as types 6 and 11, which cause about 90 percent of genital warts. All of these HPV types are passed along through sexual contact.
Most women clear HPV from their system and don’t experience any health problems. For others, the virus can result in abnormal cells on the cervix, which can develop into cancer years later.
Gardasil stands to make a major global impact: Almost a quarter of a million women die from cervical cancer each year worldwide. Consider these vaccination points:
- Age is a factor. While the vaccine is approved for use in females 9 to 26 years old, it’s most beneficial when given before a female becomes sexually active—or before she’s exposed to HPV. Gardasil will not treat an existing infection. The American Cancer Society recommends vaccination between 11 and 12 years old. Vaccination is also recommended for those 13 to 18 years old to “catch up.”
- The vaccine is relatively safe. Gardasil contains no live virus, so it’s impossible to become infected by receiving it. The biggest complaints about the vaccination have been temporary soreness or itching at the injection site and low-grade fever, nausea, dizziness and occasionally fainting after receiving the shot.
- You’ll still need a Pap test. Gardasil targets four specific types of HPV, but other forms of HPV can cause cancer. And because the vaccine is relatively new, no one is sure just how long its protective benefits will last. It also only works in females not already infected with HPV 16 or 18. Getting a routine Pap test can detect precancerous changes, allowing you to seek treatment before those changes develop into cancer.
- You can still protect yourself from cervical cancer—even if you’re not in the recommended vaccine age group. With all sexually transmitted diseases, protecting yourself from exposure is key. Not smoking is also important because smoking doubles cervical cancer risk.
If you’re unsure about whether the vaccine could benefit you, talk with your healthcare provider. He or she can help you determine the likelihood of previous HPV exposure and whether the vaccine can help you.