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Triumphs and Hurdles for the New HPV Vaccine

Significant progress in women’s health was made this summer when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first vaccine to prevent cervical cancer//. The vaccine was given the green light for use in younger women, as a way to protect against human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer.

“This is the first vaccine for a cancer ever developed,” said Phyllis Greenberger, president of the Society for Women’s Health Research and chair of the Partnership to Prevent Cervical Cancer, a coalition of American organizations and individuals dedicated to making the vaccine part of routine health care for all women in the United States. “Cervical cancer is the only cancer for which we know the cause and can provide a method of prevention that is successful in a vast majority of cases. This is a tremendous breakthrough that will save lives and reduce excess medical costs.”

The FDA has deemed the vaccine safe and effective for girls and women ages nine to 26 and studies are underway to determine the vaccine’s usefulness for women over the age of 26 and for boys and men. Other vaccines are also in development.

“The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (a federal panel of 15 experts) has recommended the HPV vaccine for females ages 11-12,” explains Janet Gilsdorf, M.D., professor and director of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor. “Females ages 13-26 should also be vaccinated.”

The vaccine is specifically recommended for girls 11-12 because researchers discovered that the maximum benefit from the vaccine occurs when it is given prior to the first sexual experience. The vaccine does not work as well for those who have already been exposed to the virus, but most women will still benefit from getting the vaccine because they will be protected against other virus types contained in the vaccine.

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