The new HPV vaccine – it’s worth a shot

Here’s a story that I wish had received as much coverage as Anna Nicole Smith’s death: The FDA approved a vaccine for women ages 9 to 26 that attacks the leading cause of cervical cancer – HPV.

Gardasil, the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine, debuted in June and is 100 percent effective in preventing HPV strains 16 and 18, which cause 70 percent of cervical cancers.

The cozy truth is that even though most sexually active people have been infected with some type of genital HPV, most strains of the virus won’t cause symptoms or problems.

Still, we need a reality check. HPV causes nearly all cases of cervical cancer. The American Cancer Society predicts 11,150 cases of invasive cervical cancer will be diagnosed in the United States in 2007, leading to 3,670 deaths. Globally, HPV is the second most common cause of cancer death in women.

Considering undergrads easily make the 26-year cutoff, it is surprising that none have asked Health Services about the vaccine. Yet at least seven parents have e-mailed Janice Vermeychuk, associate director of Health Services, asking about its availability, she tells me. One inquiring mother has twin daughters who weren’t accepted to the College yet (heads up, ambassadors).

The good news: Health Services will order Gardasil for any student on a pre-paid basis. The bad news: At the College, it costs $145 a dose . and you need three doses.

The retail value of each dose is $120. Even that raw figure, before the fees, is steep, and not all insurance companies will cover it. Fortunately, Merck, the New Jersey-based company that makes the vaccine, reports that 90 percent of insurance companies plan to do so.

With a $435 price tag, it is easy to find excuses not to get vaccinated. “I’m already sexually active and it’s proven most effective on those not yet exposed to HPV,” some say. Yes, but it can still save your life if you haven’t been exposed to strains 16 and 18.

On the flip side, “I’m not sexually active, so I don’t need to worry about getting the virus.” Well, that’s short-sighted; see excuse number one. And, “I’ll still have to get annual pap smears, so I’ll just protect myself that way.” True – you still need your annual pap, but that doesn’t nip those deadly HPV strains. “No one’s missed the boat on this,” Vermeychuk said.

There are a few steps you can take in five minutes or less to help spread the vaccine. E-mail Assemblyman Neil Cohen at, urging him to support A3659, a New Jersey bill that would require insurers and state health care programs to cover Gardasil.

The bill, cosponsored by Assemblyman Bill Baroni and Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck, both Republicans who represent parts of Mercer County, awaits a hearing in the Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee that Cohen chairs. Opponents say the bill would dump $2.2 million in health insurance costs on the government.

But let’s think long term: a couple million to protect a whole state is a lot cheaper than cancer treatment.

If money is a deal breaker, look into receiving coverage under the Merck Vaccine Patient Assistant Program, which provides free vaccinations in private physician’s offices to uninsured, lower-income women. If you are younger than 18 and uninsured or Medicaid-eligible, you can qualify for coverage under the federal Vaccines for Children program.

Since we live on, join the group “HPV Awareness.” Lauren Sabia, a UCLA student, started it in August after her doctor found precancerous cells on her cervix due to HPV. If the cells weren’t detected and treated, she could have developed cervical cancer.

“Awareness is the cure; one of the main reasons HPV is so dangerous is because it has little or no symptoms and women don’t know that it’s there,” she said.

Finally and most importantly, schedule an appointment with your gynecologist or Health Services (e-mail to ask if you can get the vaccine. One student told me she went for her annual checkup in January and her doctor didn’t even mention the vaccine. Clearly, we have to take our health into our own hands. And Health Services shouldn’t get mommy notes like our high school gym teachers. We need to be the ones asking the questions.

Merck’s television commercials for Gardasil reiterate the slogan “tell someone.” Tell someone that HPV causes cervical cancer. I just did. Who’s next?

Information from –,,