Americans are now more aware than ever of the risks of cancer. More and more people go to great lengths to avoid the sun, artificial sweeteners and smoke; now it seems that cancer can even be prevented through a vaccine.
Gardasil, from Merck & Co., is a vaccine that prevents infection from four of 30 strains of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) that are transmitted sexually. The vaccine guards against two strains of the virus that cause genital warts, and against two strains that can cause cervical cancer in women.
The vaccine is recommended for 11 to 26 year-old girls.
"The ideal is to vaccinate young women before they are sexually active," Christine Peterson, head of gynecology at Student Health, said.
Gardasil was approved by the Food and Drug Administration over the summer, but the idea of a vaccine to prevent HPV is not new.
Starting in 1998, "U.Va. students were among the experimental group for three different vaccines, including Gardasil," Peterson said.
"Over the course of their lifetimes 80 percent of women will be infected with some form of HPV," Steph Shaw, peer health educator and president of VOX : Voices of Planned Parenthood, said. "Many of the strains are innocuous and clear up on their own, like many viruses that the body encounters. Others cause genital warts, and can lead to cell changes that cause cervical cancer."
Shaw also said that 70 percent of cervical cancer cases and 90 percent of genital warts cases are caused by HPV.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, because there are not always signs or symptoms of HPV, a person may have HPV even if years have passed since he or she last had sex.
At the present, there is no cure for HPV. Therefore, many believe that vaccination is crucial to prevent cervical cancers and genital warts.
Worldwide, a quarter of a million women die each year from cervical cancer, though in America there are only about 4,000 deaths per year, according to FDA.
Despite the promise that there is a vaccine that can in fact prevent most types of cervical cancer and genital warts, not all groups are pleased.
"The Christian right wing and other conservative groups are not going to oppose the vaccine, but they do not think it should be a part of mandatory school vaccinations," Kate Cristol, president of the University Democrats, said.
Those who adhere to that opinion may do so out of a belief that "if you vaccinate young women against HPV, that might change their decisions to remain virgins," Cristol said.
Cristol disagrees with this position.
"I think it's absurd to suggest that vaccinating young women against a virus that causes cancer is going to encourage sexually promiscuous behavior," Cristol said.
Shaw agrees with Cristol's position. "To deny women a life-saving vaccine against the most common STD because some people speculate that it will increase sexual risk-taking is completely unethical," she said.
Shaw also emphasized that no studies have been done to show that this vaccine has any influence on female promiscuity.
Another concern raised by those skeptical of the vaccine is that women may no longer see the need to get regular PAP smears.
Shaw said there are ways to encourage women to continue to get PAP smears, namely through education.
"If we get the message out there that it does not prevent all strains of HPV that cause cancer, women will know that PAPs are necessary," Shaw said.
"The vaccine won't eliminate the need for PAP tests, because there are other types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer that the vaccine does not prevent," Peterson said.
There are many groups on Grounds educating people about the virus and the new vaccine.
The Peer Health Educators go to first-year dorms, sororities and other groups to teach students about important health issues, including HPV.
"The Peer Health Educators devote a portion of our sexual health presentation to basic education on HPV, since many people confuse it with HIV," Shaw said.
The University chapter of Planned Parenthood also deals with the issue, according to Shaw.
"VOX, Voices for Planned Parenthood, discusses this is in the larger context of women's reproductive health," she said.
Even the University Democrats, though not a group devoted to sexual health education, recognizes the significance of the vaccine.
"Having an open and honest conversation and exchange about sexual health is always part of our agenda as UDems," Cristol said.
University groups have even reached out to parents to inform them about HPV, according to Tara Schuster, health educator at the Office of Health Promotion.
"Student Health representatives went out to educate parents [about HPV] during orientation," Schuster said.
She added that during orientation week, Student Health educated all 250 resident advisors about HPV and provided them with written materials.
Schuster also said that they have been working with Student Health, LGBT Resource Center, the Office of the Dean of Students, FORCE (a cancer-awareness student group) and the Peer Health Educators to help inform students of the vaccine.
According to Peterson, Student Health is "making sure that every woman who comes into the GYN clinic is informed about the vaccine through our flyers and through talking with them. We are trying to get the word to every female student eligible for the vaccine."
The vaccine is currently available at Student Health. There are three doses over the course of six months, and each dose costs about $145.
"It is quite expensive, but Student Health doesn't charge for office visits and many insurance plans may cover it," Peterson said.
Another incentive to get the vaccine at Student Health is that "the vaccine can be as much as $250 per dose elsewhere," Schuster said.
"We encourage any woman between 9 and 26 to get the shot, regardless of sexual activity," she said.
The Gynecology Clinic at Student Health will be holding Gardasil immunization clinics on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. Students are encouraged to call 924-2773 to make an appointment, specifying an interest in the vaccine.
General Medicine Immunization Clinic at Student Health also encourages students to walk in between either 9 a.m and noon or 2 and 4 p.m. to request the vaccine.