Bad news for 27-year-old virgins

The FDA is delaying its decision on whether to approve Gardasil, the cervical cancer vaccine, for women over 26.

Published June 26, 2008 10:05AM (EDT)

Here's some unfortunate news for any American woman between 27 and 45 years old who was hoping to get an insurance-covered dose of Gardasil, most commonly known as the cervical cancer vaccine. (It's actually a vaccine against the four strains of the human papilloma virus most directly linked to cervical cancer and genital warts.) According to U.S. News and World Report, the FDA announced on Wednesday that it needs more time to decide whether to extend approval for Gardasil to women above the OK'd age limit of 26. (Here's more background from Bloomberg.)

We've written oftentimes before about Gardasil and Cervarix -- a similar vaccine approved in Australia and Great Britain for women up to 45 -- usually to note how crazy it is that cervical cancer's link to sexual activity has made people actually oppose the first-ever cancer vaccine. But Deborah Kotz, the author of the U.S News piece, raises some additional interesting points. She quotes gynecologist Diane Harper as saying that it is "absolutely artificial to say that we shouldn't vaccinate older women" or that the vaccine only is effective for virgins, since half the women she inoculates are in or approaching middle age, and many are "hitting the dating scene again after divorcing or becoming widows." In other words, sure, the American Council on Science and Health has reported that nearly 50 percent of American women can expect to be infected with some strain of HPV during their lives and that 45 percent of women between 20 and 24 have already been infected -- but that doesn't mean the vaccine wouldn't be useful for women over 26. As Kotz explains:

"Although the vaccine doesn't do any good against active infections, HPV goes away on its own about 75 to 95 percent of the time. That means women can get infected, have the virus clear from their system, and then get infected again. In fact, British research found that 21 percent of women in their 50s, who were HPV free at the beginning of the study, tested positive for the virus three years later. The potential benefits of expanding vaccination are huge. Statistical models show that if all females ages 12 to 26 were given the vaccine, the incidence of cervical cancer would be reduced by half in 25 to 30 years; adding women to age 55 would achieve the same result in a decade."

And, of course, that's not even counting the 27-year-old virgins out there, or the sexually active women who have not contracted HPV by the end of their 26th year.

Kotz ends with her hope that the FDA will speed up the process and approve both Gardasil (for older women) and Cervarix (for everyone) ASAP. I, for one, second that emotion.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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