Q&A: Does my daughter need the cervical cancer vaccine?
What is the cervical cancer vaccine that I’m seeing advertised on TV? Should I have my daughter vaccinated?
The vaccine you are seeing advertised is actually a vaccine to protect against HPV or the human papilloma virus. Certain types of this virus can cause cervical cancer.
The cervix is the lowest part of the uterus and it acts as a pathway between the uterus (womb) and the vagina. Because of this location, the cervix is especially vulnerable to exposure of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Cancer can develop in the cervix when abnormal cells grow at a rapid rate—when normal cells come into contact with cancer-causing agents. In the case of cervical cancer, HPV is often the agent (cervical cancer can also develop in women who don’t have HPV). And when it is sexually transmitted it can affect the cells of the cervix, over time leading to the development of cancer.
What puts women at risk for acquiring this cancer-causing virus? The American Cancer Society reports that having sex at an early age, having many sexual partners, and having a partner who has had many partners are all factors that can increase a woman’s risk of HPV infection. Even those women who use condoms regularly and may be monogamous, are still at high risk. This is due to the fact that the virus can be passed with skin to skin contact from areas not protected by a condom.
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) estimates that 20 million people in the United States are carriers of HPV. Many types of HPV (there are more than 100 types of papilloma viruses) may cause no harm or symptoms and go away on their own. But there are four types that are considered high risk and can lead to either cervical cancer or genital warts.
The HPV vaccine, currently being sold under the name Gardisil, can protect against high-risk HPVs. The vaccine is administered in a series of three shots given over a six-month period. (The second injection is given two months after the first one and the third is given four months after the second.) The most commonly reported side effects include short-term redness and swelling or soreness at the injection site.
It is important to keep in mind and discuss with your daughter the importance of protection against all types of HPV and other STDs. Routine testing, such as pap smears, will screen for HPV or any precancerous changes in the cervix. The American Cancer Society points out, “most invasive cervical cancers are found in women who have not had regular Pap tests.”
According to Dr. Robert J. Goldberg, MD, FACOG, of the Avery Center in Westport, Connecticut, the best time to get vaccinated is earlier rather than later. “Ideally you want to target women before they become sexually active since HPV is so common and it is difficult to know if someone has it or has been exposed.” Your daughter’s pediatrician will recommend the HPV vaccine around age 11 (the American Cancer Society states that it is at the discretion of the doctor, but it may be recommend as early as age nine).
There are so many important decisions you’ll need to make with regard to your family’s health and well being. These decisions can often be confusing. The best place to start is by asking questions and talking with your family doctor.