Despite that only one third of teenage girls have received all three doses of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine called Gardasil since its introduction to the market in 2006, the prevalence of the sexually transmitted infection has been cut in half.
Doctors and health officials are encouraging more mothers to vaccinate their children, but worry that a growing resistance to Gardasil will accompany the striking and preventative results they have seen thus far.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV is the most common STI in the United States. There are more than 40 strands of the virus that affect both males and females, but the greatest risk is for females who can develop cervical cancer due to exposure to the virus. According to data collected by the New York Times, 12,000 females report cases of cervical cancer and 4,000 die each year from the disease in the U.S.
Gardasil is given in a three-dose series. In 2009, three years after it was made available for females, the vaccine was approved for males. According to TIME magazine, the vaccine "protects against four strains of HPV: 6 and 11, which cause 90% of genital warts cases, and 16 and 18, which cause 75% of all cervical cancers." It may also help protect men against related cancers.
The vaccine has manifested such drastic results that the CDC recommends it for all females between the ages of 9 and 26. Since the vaccine's debut, the HPV strains that cause cancer dropped dramatically, according to data reported by the New York Times; from 2006 to 2010, the prevalence fell from 7.2% to 3.6% among girls ages 14 to 19. Doctors are optimistic about the power of the vaccine based on the current vaccination rate; if the same trajectory is maintained, "the vaccine would prevent 45,000 cases of cervical cancer and 14,000 deaths among girls now age 13 and younger over the course of their lifetimes."
Doctors and health officials cannot fully explain the success of the vaccine, especially since two thirds of patients recommended to take the vaccine have not received all three-doses.
The HPV vaccine is, essentially, "an anticancer vaccine,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So, if Gardasil is a miracle vaccine, why are many parents still not vaccinating their children?
First of all, there has been controversy regarding the effects of the vaccine. For instance, Michele Bachmann called the vaccine dangerous during the 2011 Republican primary. Given its newness, there is no way to determine what the long-term risks of Gardasil might someday be (if any arise at all). Nonetheless, health officials say the concern for dangerous effects is "unfounded." In addition, with officials boasting such staggering results and no concerns, anticipated side-effects cannot fully explain many parents' reluctance to the vaccine.
Gardasil is attached to a stigma, a New York Times article argued; since HPV is an STI, many parents feel uncomfortable or unwilling to offer their children a preventative measure. On the one hand, they may believe that vaccinating their children gives them the OK to engage in promiscuous behavior or to have sex at all. In this way, the vaccine is a stigma on young adults who seem sexually liberal and on parents who tacitly accept it or feel as if they are actually encouraging it.
These reluctant parents must understand that denying their children access to the vaccine will not convince them to abstain from sexual behavior that could potentially lead to HPV. On the contrary, young people will continue the same practices while they remain at risk for STIs. We have been given access to the science to save lives and protect ourselves from diseases that once could not be protected against; we must use and embrace it.
Despite the progress that Gardasil has exhibited thus far, health officials remain skeptical that the vaccine will maintain the same results in the future. First of all, the cost of the vaccine presents a financial barrier, discouraging parents from vaccinating their children. The full-cost of the three-dose cycle is $500, and many health care plans either refuse to cover the cost or require large co-pays, according to the New York Times. Cost will also affect make the vaccine less accessible to certain demographics. According to Dr. Frieden, however, the Obama health care laws will aid access to Gardasil. The law "requires providers to cover the vaccine at no cost to patients," he said.
A larger issue than parental resistance is the potentially growing biological resistance to the vaccine. There have already been "some signs that resistance to the vaccine may be growing." Given the nature of cancer and the disease's ability to mutate itself into new, unpreventable strains, we can only anticipate such a challenge.
In the meantime, however, scientists have given us access to a safe drug that has demonstrated the extremely rare ability to prevent against cancer. Parents must get over the stigma attached to Gardasil and take advantage of the opportunity to potentially save their children's lives.