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Health Services offers cervical cancer vaccine

Kate Antonacci | Thursday, February 22, 2007

The commercials show women – healthy, strong, young women – vowing to be “one less life affected by cervical cancer.”

To be “one less,” the women’s answer is Gardasil, the first cervical cancer vaccine to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Since Gardasil’s approval on June 8, the “1 Less” ads have been encouraging women between ages 9 and 26 to ask their doctor about the vaccine. Some women at Notre Dame have done just that, beginning the three-shot-regimen that is available at University Health Services.

“We have to be concerned with the prevention of illness,” said Ann Kleva, director of University Health Services. “Cervical cancer is life-threatening.”

Looking to lower the number of deaths by cervical cancer – which currently hover around 4,000 women per year in the U.S. – the pharmaceutical company Merck and Co. manufactured a vaccine protecting against types 6, 11, 16 and 18 of the virus known as human papillomavirus, or HPV. Of those types, 16 and 18 are the ones that cause 70 percent of the cervical cancer. Six and 11 cause 90 percent of genital warts, Kleva said.

 “It’s the first of its kind – an anti-viral that can prevent cancer,” she said. “It is protection that’s going to carry you into your life.”

Since August, “maybe 20 women” have gone to Health Services for the vaccine, Kleva said.

Gardasil was first available at Health Services in the fall after “a few parents called in July and August” to see if doses of the shots would be available for their daughters when the new semester started.

Because the three shots are given over six months – the first on any date, the second two months later and the third four months after the second shot – it was important to many parents and students that the later doses be available if needed during the school year, Kleva said.

As of January, Health Services began keeping minimum doses available.

Though HPV is transmitted through either sexual intercourse or genital contact, Kleva said the vaccine is not about sexual activity.

“A lot of women have received this vaccination that aren’t sexually active nor do they plan on being sexually active in the near future,” Kleva said. “At this point in time, with the vaccine being so new, there are perceptions of why somebody would be taking it. The assumption is because of sexual activity. But we look at prevention of illness. We’re not looking at behaviors.”

Kleva said offering the vaccine does not mean that pre-marital sex or “any type of behavior that is not supported by this University” is being supported, or is even happening among the women opting to receive the vaccine. Rather, she said, the availability shows concern about preventing a “very, very serious illness.”

For those considering Gardasil, Kleva said Health Services provides education and allows “individuals to make up their own decisions” concerning this particular vaccine.

But at a pricey $160 per injection, she said “everyone really needs to check with their insurance” before getting the injection.