Vaccine prevents cervical cancer

A first-ever vaccine against the most common causes of cervical cancer could cut deaths world wide from the cancer by 70 per cent, according to officials at pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co.

A recent US federal panel recommended FDA approval of the vaccine, called Gardasil, which protects against two types of human papillomavius (HPV) believed responsible for 70 per cent of cervix cancer cases. It also protects against two types that cause 90 per cent of genital wart cases.

The Federal Drug Administration, which is to give a final decision on June 8, typically follows the advice of its health expert panels.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection and it affects more than 50 per cent of sexually active adults. It can lead to cancer of the cervix which is the number two killer of women worldwide. Roughly 290,000 women die each year from the disease, including about 3,500 in the United States and 400 in Canada.

About 1,400 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in Canada annually, where regular Pap smears detect precancerous lesions and early cancer.

“This is certainly a wonderful, good step in addition to o screening processes,” in helping eradicate cervical cancer, says Dr. Monica Farley, who heads the advisory council. Dr. Farley is a bacterial infectious disease expert at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

“Gardasil has the potential to meet an unmet medical need as the first vaccine to prevent cervical cancer,” Merck’s Dr. Patrick Brill-Edwards told the Vaccine and Related Biological Products advisory committee.

Other speakers indicated the vaccine would not replace a Pap smear, but would help to eliminate many of the abnormal results from the examination.

The vaccine would be given to girls between the ages of nine and 26, but would be most effective when given to girls before they begin having sex.

Early opposition to Gardasil was based on concerns by some Christian groups that it might encourage sexual activity in teens and pre-teens. But this has largely receded because of the vaccine’s potential to reduce cancer.

Other concerns were based on the anticipated cost of the vaccine, which is $300 to $500 US. The vaccine would be administered in three shots over six months.

Facts about cervical cancer

• Cancer of the cervix is common in women. The disease occurs when malignant cells are found in the tissue of the cervix. Cervical cancer usually grows slowly over a period of time. Before cancer develops, cervical tissues change and abnormal cells called dysplasia begin to appear.

• Since there are usually no symptoms associated with precancerous changes of the cervix, it is important for women who are sexually active or 18 years or older to have an annual Pap smear screening examination. Symptoms don’t usually appear until abnormal cervical cells become cancerous and invade nearby tissue. When this happens, the most common symptom is abnormal bleeding. Bleeding may occur during intercourse, douching, or a pelvic exam. Menstrual bleeding may last longer and be heavier than usual.

• Risk factors for developing cervical cancer include an early age of first intercourse, a history of multiple sex partners, exposure to genital human papillomavirus (HPV) and smoking.

• Treatment depends on the location and size of tumor, the stage of the disease, the woman’s age, general health and other factors. Most often the treatment involves surgery and radiation therapy. Chemotherapy or biological treatments may also be used.