"Nearly all sexually active people are going to get exposed to the virus sometime during their lives," says Dr. Ault. "For most people, HPV causes no complications and goes away on its own. However, in some cases, if left untreated, certain high-risk types of HPV can lead to cervical cancer.
"The goal of the study was to see if we could prevent precancerous cases and we were 98 percent effective. Everyone who gets cancer goes through a pre-cancerous stage," says Ault. "There are about 50 to 60 million pap smears performed each year in the US, and about seven percent are abnormal. We spend about 3 billion dollars each year to find and treat these pre-cancerous stages caused by some type of HPV."
To date there is no vaccine specifically designed to treat disease that is already established. Dr. Ault explains the current HPV vaccine is meant to be a preventive or prophylactic vaccine Ð that's why it is given to adolescents.
Gardasil was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year for use in females 9 to 26 years of age. While controversy has been raised about giving pre-adolescent girls a vaccine for a sexually transmitted disease, Dr. Ault argues, "young women, young girls make very good immune responses to this vaccine, so that will enhance their protection."
Researchers believe the vaccine will be effective in lowering a girl's lifetime risk of cervical cancer. To that end Merck launched the national "One Less" campaign last year, which encourages females eligible for the vaccine to begin their vaccination series of three shots over six months and to continue seeing their doctor for regular checkups and screenings.