Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Tell Someone! "Don't bother with the HPV vaccine"

HPV is incredibly common, sometimes it causes warts, sometimes it causes cancer, but mostly it causes nothing and goes away on its own. (see

Chances are, unless you're a virgin, you've already been exposed to HPV. The big deal about the vaccine is that it does prevent the persistent infection of the body with the particular type of HPV that causes cervical cancer, which, they think, will actually prevent cancer. So that's why you've seen the commercials that say "A vaccine! For a virus! That causes Cancer!"

But here's the thing: the vaccine costs about $350, it does nothing to stop an already present HPV infection, and the vast majority of cervical cancer in this country is caught early by annual Pap smears. The places in the world where cervical cancer is a prevalent killer among women are resource-poor countries, and it's anybody's guess how they will be able to afford to spend $350 on a vaccine. And speaking of resource-poor, the following groups within the United States have the highest diagnostic rate of cervical cancer: "Black women in the South, women living along the Texas-Mexico border, white women in Appalachia, American Indians in the Northern Plains, Vietnamese-American women and Alaska Natives are among the U.S. women who are most likely to die of cervical cancer." ( These are populations who also have disproportionately bad access to health care services (to say nothing of specialized women's health services like Paps).

So, here's what you need to know: approximately 4,000 women in the U.S. die of cervical cancer each year, and the majority of untreatable cases are found in women who have not had a Pap in at least 5 years. Almost all cases caught by annual Paps are highly treatable. And the vaccine probably won't help you if you've already had sex. And it only prevents one of the several strains of HPV that can cause cancer. So perhaps this vaccine will be added to the litany of shots given to little kids, but it will probably not cause a steep decline in cervical cancer. And it costs $350. Just get a Pap.

For More: (Merck's website for the vaccine)

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