Imagine an infection so devastating that it affects 20 million people in the United States and almost 45 percent of college-aged women. Now, imagine a vaccine that could turn these statistics around and improve the quality of life for millions of women.
The infection is called human papillomavirus (HPV) and is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Health Services is doing its part to remedy this by offering Gardasil, a new vaccine to combat HPV.
Gardasil requires three doses, including the initial shot, followed by one no sooner than two months later and a final dose after six months.
Accordingly, Health Services will be offering a Gardasil clinic on three separate dates where the vaccine will be available to all College women. The clinics are scheduled for Tues. Sept. 25 and Dec. 4 from 4 p.m. – 7 p.m. in Eickhoff 158 and Tuesday April 22 from 4 p.m. -7 p.m. in Eickhoff 113.
“It’s a very worthwhile vaccine,” associate director of Health Services Janice Vermeychuk said, adding that they hope to vaccinate about 300 students.
HPV is a very common virus that is spread through skin contact and can result in warts. Although most cases include little to no symptoms and eventually clear up, some of the more severe strains can cause genital warts and abnormal Pap smears that can conclude in cervical cancer, the second-leading cause of death in women worldwide.
According to Vermeychuk, 80 percent of young women clear the case of HPV they have in two years and the virus never returns. However, “it is the type of high-risk HPV that affects genital areas that concerns us the most,” she said.
Types 16 and 18 are two of over 100 strands of HPV that worry healthcare professionals like Vermeychuk the most and can lead to cervical cancer. Gardasil works by protecting against these potentially deadly types of HPV, as well as types 6 and 11.
Although the most harmful HPV strands are only spread through sexual contact, Vermeychuk stresses that this does not mean you’re safe if you just use condoms or only have vaginal intercourse. “You’re not fully protected unless you’re putting a condom over your entire body,” she said, explaining that any genital contact, including oral or manual, can spread these virulent forms of HPV.
Gardasil is approved for use among 9-26-year-old women, with doctors recommending that young girls receive the vaccine around age 11 or 12. The vaccine works best at such young ages, before any possibility of HPV contraction through sexual contact.
However, the vaccine will also work for older women and those who are already sexually active. There are many strands of HPV and even someone who is currently infected with it may not have the type that causes cervical cancer that Gardasil protects against, making them just as ideal a candidate for the vaccine as a younger woman.
“It’s very worthwhile even if you’ve been sexually active for five years,” Vermeychuk said. “You don’t want to wait – in two years you might be exposed.”
She cited an alarming study done by the American College Health Association, who conducted a survey at an unnamed university. As incoming freshmen, 26 percent had HPV. By sophomore year that number had risen to 46 percent, and by junior and senior year, 60 percent of female students were infected with HPV, a dramatic rise that highlights the necessity of a vaccine like Gardasil.
One cause of concern is the cost. Through Passport Health, the company which Health Services is conducting the clinics with, each dose of the vaccine is $190. For all three required doses, that brings the cost of the vaccine to a whopping $570, a price which may seem impossible on a college budget.
Nevertheless, Vermeychuk did stress that most insurance companies do cover almost the entire cost of Gardasil. Passport Health can give students a super bill, which they can easily submit to insurance companies for reimbursement.
Another option is using the Wellness benefit of the College’s student insurance, which budgets $250 per year for services like Pap smears and gynecological appointments, but can also include the cost of vaccines. Using this $250 toward the vaccine is a possibility, although the student will then have exhausted their entire Wellness benefit for the year.
Some are also concerned about the newness of the vaccine. Gardasil was only approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in June 2006 and some worry not enough is known about potential side effects.
Vermeychuk acknowledges these doubts, but maintains the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. “They have done five years of research. It’s very hard to get any drug released in the United States. They must go through very rigorous trials,” she said.
As for the success rate of the vaccine, Gardasil is 99-100 percent effective. In comparison, the flu shot is only about 70 percent effective.
Students who cannot make the designated times can also call Passport Health at 1-800-741-0504 to set up an individual appointment to receive the vaccine. Anyone wishing to receive the vaccine should call the company or Health Services ahead of time, so they know how many vaccines to bring to the clinic. For more information on Gardasil and HPV, visit tcnj.edu/~sa/health/HPVVaccinationDates.htm or the American College Health Association at acha.org.