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What you need to know about Gardasil, HPV and cervical cancer

You’ve seen the commercials – the happy faces and the “one less” slogan. Gardasil, the vaccine for genital warts or human papilloma virus (HPV), has been all the rage since it came onto the market two years ago. However, if you are considering Gardasil, there is more you should know about this new vaccine that many doctors are recommending for girls as young as nine.

Sharing their own opinions and knowledge about the vaccine are Dr. Tri Dinh, gynecologic oncologist at The Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, and Dr. Daron Ferris of the Medical College of Georgia, who was a key physician in the clinical trials and development of Gardasil.



Thirty to forty years ago, cervical cancer was one of the leading causes of cancer deaths in women in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These numbers have dropped considerably during the past few decades because of the regularity of pap smears that detect cervical cancer in its early stages. However, according to Dinh, the number of cervical cancer cases has leveled out since the 1980s because “we’d maxed out on the screening strategy.” This means something else needed to be done to continue the decline of cervical cancer cases.

Reduce your risk for cervical cancer

The most significant way to reduce your risk for cervical cancer is to reduce your risk of contracting HPV. According to the CDC, about six million new cases of genital HPV are reported in the United States each year, with 74 percent occurring in 15- to 24-year-olds. More than half of sexually active men and women will contract HPV sometime in their lives, and, in many cases, remain completely unaware they have it. Intercourse is not the only way to spread the disease, only genital contact is necessary, and after transmission there are no signs or symptoms of the virus.


Of over 40 different types of genital HPV, Gardasil prevents only four. That doesn’t sound like much, but these four types are responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancer cases and 90 percent of the genital warts cases. And even if you opt for Gardasil, you still need to have an annual pap smear.

The great likelihood of sexually active people contracting HPV as well as increasing their risk of cervical cancer has made Gardasil what Ferris calls, “one of the best [vaccines] ever made.”

Dinh also believes that this vaccine is incredibly valuable as a primary means of protection. While pap smears were effective at reducing that amount of cervical cancer deaths as a secondary means of protection, Gardasil is “one step beyond that – by preventing it from even developing.” However, because Garadsil does not prevent all types of HPV, pap smears are still very important in monitoring your gynecological health. He emphasizes, “Receiving the vaccination at whatever age does not alleviate the need for pap smears.”


Gardasil has created some controversy in states that have made state-mandated programs that require girls of a certain age to receive the vaccine. Some parents are not comfortable even thinking about their 11- and 12-year old daughters having sex and putting themselves at risk for HPV. Other parents are all for it. According to Dinh and Ferris, this is not uncommon. However, both doctors feel that young girls should receive the vaccine and both support state-mandated programs which would make the vaccine more accessible and widespread.

“There is no evidence to suggest young people will increase risk-taking behavior if given a vaccine to prevent disease,” says Dinh. “People will do what they will do…engage in behaviors that are acceptable to them at the moment.”

According to Dinh, five percent of 13-year-olds have had sexual intercourse, which is why he stresses that parents have their children vaccinated before they are sexually active. “If they are already exposed, [the vaccine] makes no difference,” he adds.

Ferris gives another analogy: “Just because you get your child a tetanus shot doesn’t mean they are more likely to step on rusty nails.”

While 9- to 12-years of age may seem fairly young to receive the vaccine, Ferris says the alternative would not be so effective. He jokes that if parents could tell him exactly when their daughter would start sexual activity six months in advance, it could work.


Because the vaccine has only been on the market for two years, more developments can be made. So far, Ferris believes that the vaccine is doing well and, despite rumors of the vaccine containing mercury and causing diseases like Guillain-Barre syndrome, there is no evidence to suggest that Gardasil has any negative side effects other than the localized reactions from receiving the shot.

The longevity of the vaccine’s effectiveness is still not known because it has still remained effective for the women in the clinical studies – at five years. An FDA approval on extending the age of accessibility to Gardasil past 26 is pending, and Ferris says hopefully they will be able to vaccinate boys and men as well.

Dinh’s ultimate advice to women, “Vaccinate, and vaccinate early.”

For more information on HPV and cervical cancer, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And for more articles on women’s health, visit the Health and Wellness Channel.

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