Cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that a vaccine has a good shot at preventing. As a result, college health officials this week will consider guidelines that many hope will lead to the vaccine being made available to students quite soon.
In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices  voted unanimously to recommend that females between the ages of 11 and 26 be vaccinated with Gardasil to prevent cervical cancer. By the end of summer, the government agency is expected to formally endorse state efforts to have children, teens and young adults vaccinated.
Curtis Allen, a spokesman for the CDC, notes that Gardisol has the capacity to prevent 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. Each year, approximately 10,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and about 3,700 die from it. “It is highly probable that this vaccine will help,” he says. “It’s important for the health of all women.”
The vaccine, which is manufactured by Merck & Co., has been proven to be highly effective in immunizing against strains of the human papilloma virus, commonly known as HPV, that are known to cause cervical cancer. The virus is mainly transmitted through genital to genital intercourse, but can also be transmitted through hand to genital and mouth to genital contact. Condoms aren’t 100 percent effective at preventing transmission.
Allen says that the CDC plans to work closely with the American College Health Association on getting word out about the vaccine and its importance. HPV is very common on college campuses. Estimates suggest that up to 75 percent of women will become infected with one or more of the sexually-transmitted HPV types at some point during adulthood. Many men also have forms of HPV, but cancer is much less common in the male population as a result of the virus. Thus, the Gardisol vaccine is being focused solely on women for now, say health experts.
Officials with the American College Health Association are hailing the CDC’s efforts as a major breakthrough in supporting student health and preventing cancer in the American female population.
“This is the biggest preventive tool we’ve ever been handed,” says James C. Turner, who heads up the Committee on Vaccine Preventable Diseases of the American College Health Association. He’s worked in the college health field for over 20 years.
Turner, who directs the Department of Student Health at the University of Virginia’s Elson Student Health Center, expects that the American College Health Association will vote this week to create guidelines to help college health systems nationwide administer the vaccine. The University of Virginia has already helped almost 30 students receive the vaccine since the CDC’s recommendation, and Turner says that many parents have been interested in helping their daughters get the vaccine.
The vaccine is most effective for those who have not yet had sex, although it is still likely to significantly decrease the risk of cervical cancer from HPV for others. Some fear that the vaccine could encourage more people to have sex by removing one risk of intercourse, and as a result, some conservative groups have opposed mass vaccination.
“The CDC appropriately recognized the great potential of a vaccine that may protect against certain types of cancer, but by giving its highest level of recommendation, the panel has placed strong pressure on state governments to make HPV vaccinations mandatory,” Linda Klepacki, an analyst for sexual health with the Focus on the Family organization, said in a statement in June. “If that happens, state officials, not parents, would become the primary sexual-health decision makers for America's children. That's the way things are done in dictatorships, not democracies.”
Cost -- not philosophy -- will probably be seen as a bigger obstacle for many college health officials, says Turner. The vaccine, which has minimal side effects, requires three shots, and costs about $450 per person. There are no generic brands of the vaccine and other drug companies are years away from developing a product similar to Gardasil.
“The question we should be asking is, ‘Can the college student afford it,” says Turner. His answer is a resounding, “Yes.” He notes that most college students are covered by their parents’ health insurance plans. For low-income families, federal health programs would cover the cost in most cases, he says.
At the University of Virginia, students who are covered under the university’s health insurance plan will also be able to have the vaccine paid for as a result of their participation in the plan. Turner believes that several other student health insurance programs nationwide may offer such benefits.
Many college health officials say that over the long-haul, providing the vaccine to students before they reach age 26 will have lasting impacts on reducing cervical cancer and the cost of treating it. Women who do end up getting the cancer currently must undergo expensive biopsies and laser and cold-freezing procedures.
“I have a kid in college right now whose calculus book cost $250 for one semester,” says Turner. “And that calculus book isn’t going to prevent cancer.”