Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

HPV vaccine available at DU’s health center

A new vaccine against the virus that causes cervical cancer has recently become available to female students at the DU Health and Counseling Center.

The vaccine, called Gardasil, is touted as “the first vaccine specifically designed to prevent cancer,” according to its manufacturer, Merck & Co.

“We’re really excited this came out,” says Katie Dunker, health promotion coordinator for the Health and Counseling Center. “This could revolutionize women’s health.”

In clinical trials of more than 20,000 women, the vaccine was found to be 100 percent effective against two strains of HPV, a virus linked to 70 percent of cervical cancer cases, and 99 percent effective against two strains that cause 90 percent of genital warts cases.

HPV, or human papillomavirus, is mainly spread by sexual contact and can go undetected for years before erupting into cell abnormality. It is this change that leads to cervical cancer, a disease that kills about 3,700 women in the U.S. each year and more than 240,000 women worldwide.

In June, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Gardasil for girls and women ages 9 to 26 as treatment for HPV, which can cause the slow growth of cervical cancer in women and lead to a number of genital cancers in men.

The Health Center at DU administered its first inoculation Sept. 5 and has seen an encouraging but slow stream of interest in the vaccine since then. The primary obstacle, health officials admit, is the cost — $450 for the three-shot series, administered within six months.

“It can seem steep, but it’s in line with other vaccinations,” Dunker says, noting that the cost is not covered by DU’s health plans, though it may be next year.

For women concerned about their health, the cost is not the concern, she says, pointing out that the mother of one first-year student made sure her daughter came to college this fall with two follow-up injections of Gardasil “in case it wasn’t available here.”

As enthusiastic as health center officials are, their primary concern isn’t so much the vaccine as it is promoting Pap tests, the best means of detecting cell abnormalities before they become cancerous. A positive result triggers more specific HPV tests that can zero in on danger and identify stages of infection, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Early stage cervical cancer is highly curable but usually shows no signs, making regular check-ups crucial, health officials say.

“It’s like smoking,” Dunker says. “Nothing now, then later in life you have real problems.”

Information on HPV and cervical cancer

Health and Counseling Center:

Women’s Cancer Network:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

National Cervical Cancer Public Information Campaign:

American Cancer Society:

Merck & Co.:

Digene Corp.:

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