RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—A new study published in the medical journal The Lancet suggests that the controversial human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine that can prevent cervical cancer can help protect older women too. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recommends vaccinating females 9 to 26 years old, with an emphasis on vaccinating 11- and 12-year-old girls, in the hopes of establishing protection from the sexually transmitted virus before girls become sexually active. While there are more than 100 strains of HPV, several strains can lead to cervical cancer down the line, while several others can cause genital warts. Currently there are no recommendations for women over age 26.
THE DETAILS: Merck, the company that markets HPV vaccine Gardasil, sponsored the newly published study and has an obvious financial stake in expanding the market for its vaccine. However, Diane Harper, MD, an internationally recognized HPV expert, and author of a commentary accompanying the study, agrees the vaccine can be beneficial to older women. She also thinks targeting 11- to 12-year-old girls is misguided advice, citing the possibility that the vaccine’s protection will fade and require another vaccination. Dr. Harper, a lead researcher in the development of the HPV vaccine and vice-chair and professor of obstetrics and gynecology, community and family medicine, and bioinformatics and personalized medicine at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine, says that until evidence shows that the vaccine lasts 15 years, it would be more reasonable and cost-effective to vaccinate young women in their late teens or early 20s.
In the new study, which was conducted in Columbia, a group of 1,900 women between 24 and 45 years old with no history of HPV infection received the three-shot Gardasil vaccine, while 1,900 got vaccine-free placebo shots. After 2 years, four vaccinated women developed HPV infections or HPV-triggered cervical disease, while 41 women in the unprotected group developed similar infections or disease. This suggests that the HPV vaccine can be effective in sexually active older women, says Dr. Harper, negating the idea that vaccination has to be administered before sexual activity begins. Besides helping prevent new infections, the vaccine may help your body stop existing infections from reproducing and causing health problems.