Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is a very common virus, that affects nearly one in four adults in the United States. While most strains of the virus are harmless, or cause only benign warts, there are up to 30 strains of HPV that can cause cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related death in women worldwide. It is a unique type of cancer, because nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. However, the good news is that there is a vaccine for the most dangerous strains of HPV known to cause cancer. This makes the HPV vaccine one of the only vaccines to-date known to prevent cancer.
In 2006, Dr Ian Frazer of Australia created the first HPV vaccine, which protected against the four most dangerous strains of the virus. The vaccine, called Gardisil, has since become an outstanding success in many parts of the world. In Australia, where the vaccine was first released, vaccination rates are close to 80%, and doctors have seen a 77% reduction in the HPV infections that often lead to cervical cancer. While the United States has a lower vaccination rate at only 54%, there has still been a 56% decline in rates of infection with HPV in the last decade. The potential to decrease cervical cancer rates in the future still remains to be seen, but these results are encouraging and already show the positive effects of the vaccine.
HPV is usually spread through sexual contact. The primary age groups recommended for vaccination are
those 9 to 13 years old, although it can be given to young adults up to 26 years of age. It is best to begin the vaccine series as early as possible, because it is given in 3 separate doses which are spread over 6-12 months. While prevention of cervical cancer is the largest benefit from the vaccine, boys are also recommended to receive the vaccine in order to help prevent spread of the virus. The HPV vaccine can also minimize the risk of other cancers including mouth, throat, and penile cancers, along with the prevention of genital warts.
In order to increase vaccination rates and reduce HPV rates in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that primary care providers continue to recommend the vaccine and educate the public regarding its potential benefits. This includes reducing stigma related to the vaccine and making the vaccine more readily available in clinics and physician’s offices. An expansion of the HPV vaccine into pharmacies could also increase availability of the vaccine. Pharmacists are also in the best position, as the front line of healthcare providers, to reach the public with vaccine information and awareness about HPV. The evidence for the vaccine’s effectiveness against HPV so far is impressive. It is estimated that, with increased awareness and vaccination programs, the United States could see a reduction in up to 90% of cases of cervical cancer within the next 10-20 years. Therefore, as pharmacists, we are in an optimal position to spread awareness about the HPV vaccine and help to continue the fight against cervical cancer.
Contributed by Kathryn Howerton, Class of 2019
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