January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month

One of the great success stories of modern preventive healthcare has been the fight against cervical cancer. In the U.S. deaths from cervical cancer have fallen nearly 75% (1955 to 1992) because we began regular screening programs for women (the Pap test).

In the 1980s we discovered that cervical cancer is caused by a virus known as the human papilloma virus (HPV). This discovery led to new tests to identify women who carry the virus, and therefore are at risk for cervical cancer. It also led to the development of a vaccine against the virus. We now view cervical cancer as a largely preventable disease.

In spite of this good news, nearly 12,000 American women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014, and around 4000 deaths will occur from the disease. So we have not yet done all that we can do. Women need to understand the importance of regular well-woman exams (including a Pap test according to the schedule your doctor recommends) and the HPV vaccine for women under the age of 27.

This is the best advice from those whose careers are dedicated to ensuring America’s good health. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider the HPV vaccine safe and beneficial.  They base their recommendation on the fact that 57 million women have received the vaccine since 2006 with very few reported “adverse events” (symptoms that may be associated with the vaccine). Sadly, less reliable sources of information compete with these scientists and physicians, and their motives are not always your well-being.

Katie Couric Alarms Moms about vaccine safety

Recently, television journalist Katie Couric devoted a portion of her show to the HPV vaccine. Ms. Couric interviewed two mothers who believe that their daughter’s were harmed by the vaccine. One daughter experienced a prolonged illness and the other died of “undetermined” causes several weeks after her immunization. Each mother seemed sincere in her belief, and of course any woman would be moved by their sadness.

Could these unfortunate events have some cause other than the vaccine? Couric never sought that medical opinion. In fact, she only included one physician in her interview. Dr. Diane Harper, who participated in the original Gardasil testing, stated that there is no data to support the vaccines benefits beyond five years.

Parents would understandably be alarmed to expose a young teen to even the smallest risk if the vaccine’s benefits would disappear before the child became sexually active. But Dr. Harper’s statement is very misleading. True, current studies of Gardasil’s effectiveness only go back six years, but the research has shown no weakening in its effectiveness over that period of time.  The obvious scientific conclusion—and the CDC’s recommendation—is that Gardasil’s immunity lasts far beyond six years.

So why did Katie Couric present such an alarming view of the vaccine? Some—including a sharply critical article in USA Today—have suggested that she and her producers chose viewer ratings over accuracy. Scare-mongers drive ratings. After criticism erupted, Couric scrambled to repair the damage, stating that “…based on the science, my personal view is that the benefits of the HPV vaccine far outweigh its risks.” She also admitted that she chose to vaccinate her own two daughters. Too little, too late. Couric’s HPV show was especially harmful to women’s health because it came from someone they have come to trust. Shame on you, Ms. Couric!

Health professionals recommend hpv vaccination

No one can promise that Gardasil, or any vaccine, is completely without risk, since an occasional individual may have an unusual sensitivity. But the recommendations that Gardasil’s benefits far outweigh its risks come overwhelmingly from health professionals and organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. As NBC news recently reported, “…the prevalence of HPV infection in girls and women fell 56% to 5.1% of the population,” in the seven-year period ending in 2010. Thomas Frieden, the CDC’s director, told NBC that this result is “better than we hoped for.”

*Boys and young men are also advised to receive the vaccine; since males who carry the HPV virus can pass it to their partners. Males are also at risk for certain cancers related to sexually transmitted HPV.