What women need to know about human papillomavirus

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Local women are not exactly lining up to get the new vaccine against the human papillomavirus, a factor recently found to be associated with cervical cancer.

Human papillomaviruses (HPV) are extremely common sexually transmitted infections, according to the National Cancer Institute. In more than 90 percent of cases, the infections are harmless and go away without treatment.

However, certain types of HPV increase women's risk for cancer of the cervix (the neck of the womb). HPV-16, the virus type that was the focus of the current study, is found in 50 percent of cervical cancers. About a dozen other HPV types are involved in most other cases of the disease.

Although the vast majority of HPV infections do not progress to cervical cancer, the rare instance when HPV infection persists seems to be important to the development of the disease.

Only within the past few weeks has a vaccine become available. Dr. Dianne Woolard of Cape Care for Women says most inquiries she has received about the vaccine have been from mothers concerned about whether or not to vaccinate their daughters. It has been recommended that girls be vaccinated before they become sexually active. Woolard said the vaccine is available to women age 9 though 26, but "really it's for anybody," Woolard said. "It's marketed and tested for women, but there's no reason why men can't get it."

The HPV virus is sexually transmitted, she said, so it makes sense that both sexes would benefit from being vaccinated.

Lisa Hendrix of Women's Healthcare said that office is promoting education about the vaccine, but is not vaccinating many people.

"It's only been available a couple of months," Hendrix said. "Not many have asked for it."

Unless health insurance companies are willing to include the vaccine in their coverage plans, it's not likely to be widely used, Woolard suggested.

"Right now, we're working out the kinks in the insurance, " she said. "That seems to be a big issue at this point."

Woolard said that physicians have met with Missouri Medicare and made recommendations about covering the cost of the vaccine, but no decision has been forthcoming. Some insurance carriers have balked at covering the cost of the vaccine. Woolard said the vaccine is administered in three doses and the cost to the consumer is in the range of $155 to $170 per injection.

"We're encouraging people to call their insurance provider and find out if it's covered," she said. "It will be interesting to know what Missouri Medicaid is going to do."

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