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Three Shots and You're Protected 

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 11,000 new cases of cervical cancer will be diagnosed in 2007 and approximately 3,600 deaths will occur as the result of cervical cancer. Because of regular Pap tests, however, these numbers are much lower than ever before. Now, in addition to regular screenings, there is more you can do to protect yourself and your daughter from the virus responsible for most cervical cancers. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine that protects against the four strains of HPV that lead to 70 percent of cervical cancers and 90 percent of genital warts. Fifty percent of all people in the United States will become infected with HPV at some point in their lives, and approximately 20 million people are currently infected with this extremely common sexually transmitted disease. Although HPV is often symptomless and the infection clears up on its own within a couple of years, certain strains of HPV can lead to genital warts and cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus, or penis.

The new vaccine is recommended for 11- and 12-year-old girls, but has been tested safe for females from 9 to 26 years old. 'Ten or 11 might seem like a young age to vaccinate against a sexually transmitted disease, but the vaccine is most effective at building antibodies when given to girls around 10 or 11," says Dr. Amy Truitt, an obstetrician/gynecologist at East Jefferson General Hospital. 'It is also before most girls become sexually active and therefore before they have been exposed to the virus." Approximately 74 percent of the 6 million new cases of genital HPV each year occur in young people between 15 and 24 years old.

It is best to get the vaccine before there is any sexual contact, because the virus can be transferred through touching infected areas and is not prevented by using condoms. A person can contract HPV without having intercourse through skin-to-skin contact. Even people who already have been infected with HPV may benefit from the vaccine, since it is unlikely they have been infected with all four types of the virus that are covered by the vaccine.

Studies of more than 11,000 women show the vaccine is almost 100 percent effective in preventing health problems associated with these four strains of HPV. They also indicate there are no serious side effects from the vaccine, which is administered in three doses over six months.

Truitt, who offers the vaccine at her office and is teaching an upcoming seminar on HPV at the hospital, adds, 'Another reason it is good to give the vaccine to girls when they are younger is that it is often covered under most insurance policies up to the age of 18."

The vaccine, which is approximately $360 for the full series of shots, is also covered through several federal health programs for uninsured or Medicaid-eligible children as well as children whose private health care doesn't cover the HPV vaccine. For information about the Vaccines for Children program (VFC) visit http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/programs/vfc/default.htm.

'Even if you get the vaccine, that doesn't mean you can skip your regular Pap test," says Rebecca Charneco, head of Project Development for Women and Child Services at EJGH. 'You still need to get regular cervical cancer screenings since the vaccine doesn't protect against all types of HPV that cause cervical cancer. One of the main reasons that cases of cervical cancer deaths have decreased so dramatically and are so rare in this country is due to women getting regular Pap tests. It is vital to women's health."

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