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FDA approves first vaccine for cervical cancer

The first vaccine to protect against most cervical cancer has won federal approval.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Women for the first time have a vaccine to protect them against cervical cancer.

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday approved use of the vaccine, Gardasil, for use in girls and women ages 9 to 26. It works by preventing infection by four strains of the human papillomavirus, or HPV, the most prevalent sexually transmitted disease.

This cancer kills 3,700 women each year in the United States and hundreds of thousands more worldwide.

Gardasil, manufactured by Merck & Co. Inc., protects against the two types of HPV responsible for about 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. The vaccine also blocks infection by two other strains responsible for 90 percent of genital wart cases.

Clinical trials showed Gardasil prevented 100 percent of cervical cancer related to the two HPV strains in women who had not been previously infected, Merck said.

Merck is expected to market Gardasil as a cancer, rather than an STD, vaccine. It remains unclear how widespread will be the use of the three-shot series, in part because of its $360 list price. Conservative opposition to making the vaccine mandatory for school attendance may also curb its adoption.

The target age for receiving Gardasil is low because the vaccine works best when given to girls before they begin having sex and run the risk of HPV infection. The vaccine may not protect people already infected and may increase their risk of the kind of lesions that can lead to cervical cancer, the FDA has said.

The national Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will decide June 29 whether to endorse routine vaccination with Gardasil. That endorsement is critical if a vaccine is to become a standard of care.

It then will be up to individual states to decide whether to add the vaccine to the list of others required before students may attend public schools.

Oppose mandatory shots
Conservative groups like Focus on the Family support availability of the vaccine, but oppose making it mandatory, saying the decision to vaccinate should rest with a child’s parents or guardians. It promotes abstinence as the best way of warding off infection by HPV and other STDs.

HPV affects more than 50 percent of sexually active adults at some point in their lives. The cervical cancer it can cause kills about 290,000 women worldwide each year, including 3,700 in the United States. In the U.S., regular Pap smears often detect precancerous lesions and early cancer. The vaccine does not eliminate the need for regular screening.

Analysts believe Gardasil sales could top $1 billion a year for Merck, which is battling thousands of lawsuits over its withdrawn painkiller Vioxx. The Whitehouse Station, N.J. company is seeking to license Gardasil in more than 50 countries.

GlaxoSmithKline PLC is also developing an HPV vaccine.

“Merck is proud to be the leader in cervical cancer vaccine research and development,” said Richard Clark, the company’s chief executive officer and president. “Bringing forward this lifesaving scientific advance is yet another testament to Merck’s long-standing mission to research and develop novel vaccines and medicines that can greatly improve public health.”

The cost of Gardasil and the difficulty of getting young girls in to see a doctor three times in six months to receive the vaccine could pose problems, said Cynthia Dailard, senior public policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, which focuses on sexual and reproductive health. Ensuring its availability to poor and minority girls and women — and others less likely to receive regular Pap exams — also will be difficult.

“This is an incredibly exciting breakthrough, but at the same time, it presents some major challenges ... of the likes of which we have never confronted before,” Dailard said.

Inda Blatch-Geib, an Akron, Ohio mother of four, said she’d consider vaccinating her daughters, ages 9 and 16. Blatch-Geib, 41, said doing so wouldn’t be tantamount to giving her girls a green light to have sex.

“Giving the vaccine goes with a conversation. We are pretty open with our children, so it wouldn’t be an issue. It would lead to conversations,” Blatch-Geib said.