Controversy Swirls Around HPV Vaccine

The new vaccine against a virus that can lead to cervical cancer has suddenly become a subject of controversy.

Merck & Co.'s Gardasil protects girls and women against four of the dozens of strains of human papilloma virus, or HPV, two of which are responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancer cases.

The federal government approved the vaccine in June for girls and women ages 9 to 26. An influential government advisory panel later recommended all 11- and 12-year-old girls get the series of shots.

Lawmakers in a dozen states have proposed adding Gardasil to the list of shots young girls must receive to attend school, sparking a debate over the intersection of sex, public health and parental rights.

Supporters of a mandate say states have a rare opportunity to fight a cancer that kills 3,700 American women every year. But opponents say states — and parents — should be trying to prevent premarital sex, not pushing a vaccine on the assumption that it's already happening.

Separately, reports The Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay, the American Cancer Society is out with guidelines for using the vaccine.

Senay points out that HPV "is considered to cause virtually all cases of cervical cancer here and around the world."

"The key" with the vaccine, she explains, is "that you need to give it before girls and women have been exposed to HPV. So, these new guidelines are stressing what age group that's appropriate for, and what the American Cancer Society is saying: that girls 11 to 12 should be getting the vaccine (it is approved for girls as young as 9); (girls) between the ages of 13-18 (should get it) if there has been no immunization or they need to catch up. … Now, for 19-26-year-olds, it's important to know (the society doesn't) believe there's enough data to make a recommendation, so (the society) wants women and their doctors to make decisions about the vaccine in that age group on a case-by-case basis."

The shots, Senay notes, are given by pediatricians and family physicians.

She says, "It's a simple shot, once, then in two months, another shot is given, then six months after the first, another shot is given. We don't know yet whether, in time, a booster shot will be needed. We know now, about five years follow-up, it's still effective but, as with all new vaccines, we need more time to be sure it remains effective over time."

Senay adds that people who've already been exposed to HPV shouldn't get the vaccine.

And, she stresses, women should "absolutely" continue to get pap tests:
"The American Cancer Society and all medical organizations that weigh in on this issue say the screening through a pap test is still absolutely essential. There are a number of reasons for that: The current vaccine only covers 70 percent of the strains that can be linked to the cancer. … Again, we don't know how long this vaccine lasts, and there are going to be some who have already been exposed to HPV who may get the vaccine and think they're protected. So, pap smears are still absolutely essential and, of course, when they do a pap smear, they do other types of health maintenance testing and evaluation, so it doesn't mean the end of pap smears."
  • Amy Clark

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