An exciting development in an otherwise dismal week for women's health: The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has recommended that 11- and 12-year-old girls be routinely vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV), the sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer, vulvar and vaginal cancers and genital warts. Although the committee does not have implementation power, according to the Washington Post, its recommendations are usually accepted by federal health officials and influence insurance coverage for vaccinations.
The Post explains that "Gardasil, developed by Merck & Co., is the first vaccine specifically designed to prevent [this] cancer." Approved earlier this month by the Food Drug Administration for females ages 9 to 26, vaccine proponents say it could "dramatically reduce the nearly 4,000 cervical cancer deaths that occur each year in the United States." An estimated 50 percent of women and men will be infected with one or more types of HPV in their lifetimes.
What is so significant about this recommendation is that scientists believe the vaccine is most effective if administered to girls before they become sexually active -- about 93 percent of children do not have sex before age 13. According to the Post, "the panel focused on 11- to 12-year-olds in part because children that age already routinely get two other shots." Several on the committee also called for the immunization of boys -- "HPV has been linked to penile, anal, and head and neck cancers and a tumor-like condition of the respiratory tract" in males. Merck hopes to have clinical effectiveness studies in males completed by 2008.
"The committee's vote was unanimous, with two of the 15 members abstaining because they have worked on Merck-funded studies," writes the Post. Religious conservatives have argued in the past that vaccinating young women and girls will encourage promiscuity.
Jeff Waldman, Planned Parenthood Federation of America's senior director of clinical services and medical education, stressed, in a statement, the importance of adequate funding for the vaccine. He said that that the committee's "recommendation for widespread vaccination is an important step forward in eradicating cervical cancer in future generations. Now we must ensure that funding is available to fully meet HPV immunization needs, that we educate the public about the importance of this milestone development, and that states add HPV immunization to their school vaccination requirements."
It is encouraging that the HPV vaccine has cleared this important committee without encountering any ideological blowback, and it's great that the virus is being treated as the serious public health threat that it is. We will keep you posted on further developments.