PUBLISHED: 4:50 PM on Wednesday, July 26, 2006
For the first time, a cancer is preventable
A milestone has been reached with the approval of a vaccine for cervical cancer: Doctors now have a way of preventing a type of cancer instead of just treating the disease.

Gardisil was recently approved by the Federal Drug Administration and introduced to the market.

"There is now for the first time ever a vaccine to prevent a cancer," said Dr. John Becker, an obstetrician and gynecologist .

"The cancer is of the cervix, the labia and the vagina. Those diseases are contagious, sexually transmitted diseases. Cervical cancer is a contagious disease, just like Hepatitis B, Rubella or German Measles."

Becker considers the vaccine a watershed event in medicine because about 4,000 women in the U.S. die each year of cervical cancer.

There are about 100 types of human papilloma viruses. Gardisil vaccine is designed to protect women who have never been infected with the viruses against four different types.

Those four types account for virtually all of the venereal warts or genital warts and 70 to 80 percent of cervical cancers.

"The most important thing is the vaccine is nearly 100 percent effective preventing people from contracting the virus," Becker said.

"It is a series of three shots. First one, then two months later and six months later. After six months, the patient is virtually 100 percent protected against those four strains of virus. It costs about $400 for the three shots."

The vaccine is recommended for patients who are between the ages of 9 and 26.

Studies by Merck, the manufacturer of Gardisil, show the vaccine prevented pre-cancerous lesions in 98 percent or more of women up to 3.5 years after vaccination, as long as women were infection-free when they received it.

Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women worldwide after breast cancer.

In developing countries, it is the leading cause of death by cancer.

According to U.S. cervical cancer statistics, the disease is the third most common gynecological cancer among American women with 12,000 new cases diagnosed annually.

Women in developing countries account for about 85 percent the yearly cases of cervical cancer which is estimated at 493,000 worldwide, according to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition.

Each year, deaths from cervical cancer are estimated at 273,500 worldwide.

Although condoms may help prevent the transmission of HPV, Becker, who has been a gynecologist in Ardmore for 30 years, recommends regular check-ups, pap smears and smoking cessation.

"We have known for a long time that the incidence of pre-cancerous pap smears are significantly increased by smoking cigarettes," Becker said.

"Smoking cessation is an important part of health care."