Stopping a silent killer

Doctors recommend new HPV vaccine for girls as young as 9

There’s no doubt Dr. Kathy Gaumer is excited about offering a new vaccine for human papillomavirus.

“This is probably one of the most important advances in women’s health in the past decade, if not longer,” says Gaumer, an obstetrician/gynecologist at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, 325 Maine.

Commonly called HPV, human papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States. More than half of sexually active men and women will become infected at some point in their life.

Usually, those infections don’t lead to any side effects, and people don’t even know they have HPV. In rare cases, HPV can lead to genital warts.

But certain strains of HPV also can lead to cervical cancer. That’s why the Food and Drug Administration in June approved a new vaccine to prevent HPV in women.

“This will protect our daughters from ever developing those high-risk HPV subgroups and cancer that relates to it in the future,” Gaumer says.

LMH and Watkins Health Center on the KU campus were among the local health care providers who received their first shipments of HPV vaccine in August. Now, they’re trying to get the word out.

At KU, Watkins officials are spreading the word through wellness fairs and information distributed in living communities.

“It’s a great vaccine to prevent cervical cancer – a big breakthrough,” says Kathy Guth, nurse practitioner.

This computer-generated model, provided by the University of Wisconsin Institute of Molecular Virology, shows the protein shell of a particle of human papillomavirus.

Interest in the vaccine has been slow so far, Guth says, but she thinks that will change as more people learn about it.

“We hope so,” she says. “I think it’s just the beginning of it.”

The FDA approved the vaccine for girls and women ages 9 through 26. Gaumer says LMH is especially advocating for girls to be vaccinated around age 11 or 12.

“The group we’re seeing the most, maybe not as young as 9, but it’s early adolescents,” Gaumer says. “The primary objective is to get these young women immunized prior to their first sexual contact. It’s hard for most parents to look at their 9-year-old daughter and bring them in for a vaccine that’s specifically for a sexually transmitted virus, but certainly in their early teen years, it’s more acceptable for them to do this.”

The vaccine, a series of three shots taken over a six-month period, costs $360 in all. But Gaumer says most insurance carriers are covering the shots.

“We now know it’s a very safe and effective vaccine that produces 100 percent immunity against those four HPV subtypes (most likely to cause cervical cancer),” Gaumer says. “The thing we don’t know yet is how long will it last, will it need a booster, and if so, at what time interval.”

Though only a small percentage of women with HPV will develop cervical cancer, more than 10,500 women develop cervical cancer, and 3,900 die from it each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gaumer says that should be enough for parents to have their girls vaccinated, and for grown women to do the same. Though the FDA only allows vaccinations through age 26 currently, Gaumer says she wouldn’t be surprised if that age restriction is lifted in the future, or that a vaccine is developed for men, who help to spread HPV through sexual contact.

Gaumer is hoping to spread the word about the potentially life-saving vaccine.

“Just as with any new treatment or procedure that comes along, it takes awhile to get the community involved and to get the word out that it’s here and we’re ready to start giving the vaccination,” she says. “Once it’s more general knowledge, we’ll have an influx of patients.”