An estimated 493,000 women worldwide will be diagnosed with new cervical cancer this year, and more than half (274,000) will die from the disease.
Vaccines preventing the human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, the primary cause of most cervical cancer, offers dramatic new opportunities for reducing these staggering numbers, yet attitudes for these vaccines remain unpopular.
The HPV vaccine is an emotional subject that can put parents on edge and has had researchers scratching their heads about its lack of appeal: If you can prevent the HPV strains that cause 70 percent of cervical cancer worldwide, why wouldn’t you rush out to get it?
Although the United States Food and Drug Administration approved Merck’s HPV vaccine Gardasil in June, 2006 for girls and women between the ages of 9 and 26, one recent study found that just one-third of teens and young women who start the three-dose vaccine series actually finish, and almost three-quarters don't start it at all. Why?
Researchers have uncovered a number of barriers that may explain the low numbers: The high vaccine cost – typically between $360-$600 for most patients – the inconvenience of the required three shots, low numbers of regular physician visits for the target group, lack of awareness about HPV, and parents' unease of immunizing their kids against a disease contracted through sexual activity.
At least part of the problem is that few young women and girls (or their parents) don’t link the virus with cervical cancer. A 2007 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found more than one-quarter of American women between the ages of 14 and 59 are estimated to have HPV, yet another study that same year found only four in 10 U.S. women had even heard of the virus.
A 2008 survey from the National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women's Health found that more than 60 percent of women are unaware of any health problems associated with HPV. What they don't know is in addition to abnormal cell growth which can lead to cervical cancer, the virus can cause genital warts.