Last month, the European Commission licenced Gardasil, the first vaccine developed to prevent HPV infection, for use in girls and women aged 9 to 26. It has now been reported in the national news that the Lancet Medical Journal has recommended that girls should be vaccinated against HPV at the age of 11 or 12.
The ready availabilty of this vaccine certainly seems long overdue (regardless of the cultural assumptions and grey areas that the recommendations on the optimum age of vaccination are obviously subject to). Indeed, we now know that HPV types 16 and 18 are responsible for 70% of all cervical cancers and that around 80% of sexually active women can expect to have an HPV infection at some point in their lives. The Lancett has also reported that the link between HPV and cervical cancer was discovered about 30 years ago.
Scarily, HPV is spread by sexual skin to skin contact so it makes sense to conclude that this has implications with regard to how much protection safer sex (i.e non-penetrative sex or condom use) can offer. I’d suggest that this in itself could mean that the number of women and girls who could be at risk is actually much higher than people might assume.
Many of the direct benefits of the prevention of HPV infection are obvious but, along with these, I’d suggest this vaccine could also be a step towards an end to invasive cervical screening programmes in the future. I realise that until the causes of the other 30% of cervical cancers are tackled, this could be some way off but wouldn’t it be liberating if the “routine smear” could be eradicated? Yes, screening has saved lives but who wouldn’t welcome it becoming less necessary because the causes of cervical cancer had been dealt with instead? (As you might gather, I’m of the Greer school of thought when it comes to the “Well Woman” routines of the medical establishment.)
Unsurprisingly, the recent developments surrounding Gardasil have provoked concerns from morally Conservative groups. Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council, for example, has been quoted in the New Scientist saying young women may see the vaccine as “a licence to engage in premarital sex”.
Yet again, it comes across that these moral crusaders don’t really care about public health at all. It actually seems to be in their interests for STIs to rage on as an ever-present threat to anyone who has had or intends to have more than one sexual partner (or has a partner who has). Is this really the moral high ground? Do these people really think women should be left open to contracting HPV and then developing a potentially avoidable and lethal disease for the sake of putting out an abstinence message?