It's been called one of the greatest medical breakthroughs in a generation, protecting men and women from several types of cancer with a vaccine. In Vermont, 51 percent under the age of 15 and 65 percent over that age have begun the series of HPV vaccinations. Our Bridget Barry Caswell recently sat down with the researcher responsible for the vaccine, Dr. Douglas Lowy, who is also the acting director of the National Cancer Institute.
"In the United States, it's about 25,000-30,000 cancers per year and about half of them are cervical cancer," Lowy said.
That's the number of cancer cases associated with the human papillomavirus, the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States. Besides cancer in women, HPV infects men, as well, causing head, neck and other genital cancers. But the HPV vaccine-- first approved in 2006 and recommended for young people beginning at age 11-- is making a difference.
Lowy's research led to its development.
"We don't have data on the cancers because cancer takes many years to develop. The data that we have really is based on the development of precancers and for people who have never been exposed to the virus before, if they are fully vaccinated they should be at least 95 percent protected against the HPV types that are targeted by the vaccines," Lowy explained.
A high rate of protection against a cancer-causing virus even higher now with a second generation of the HPV vaccine. Yet vaccination rates remain low in some parts of the country. Lowy, who also heads the National Cancer Institute, the federal government's principal agency for cancer research and training, says there are several reasons for that.
"Although it is a cancer vaccine, it's a cancer caused by sexually transmitted infection and that has some kinds of implications. Hepatitis B virus can also be transmitted sexually but we don't worry about that because we're vaccinating newborn infants. We don't see that connection," Lowy said.
Lowy says it's also difficult to overcome urban myths about vaccine side effects. He hopes that changes because he says worldwide, about 275,000 women die of cervical cancer each year caused by a virus that can remain dormant for years.
"We would in the long run like to be able to protect those women," Lowy said. "Especially because as people are living longer, the incidence and mortality rates from cervical cancer are projected to increase without this kind of intervention or without higher cervical cancer screening."
Words from a vaccine pioneer-- an expert whose decades of research led to the development of the HPV vaccine. Prevention against a cancer-causing virus that infects mostly young people but may not turn deadly for years.
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