We may have all thought that in Gardasil (which protects against human papillomavirus) we had a miracle—and we do in some ways. After all, HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer and about three out of four Canadians will be infected with HPV at least once. But while it appears to be great news for the 9–26-year-old set it’s been approved for, what about those of us who are older? The vaccine was originally developed for, and testing focused on, those 9–26-year-olds. Gardasil has been more recently tested on women 24–45, but the results have yet to be published. It’s still early days, so stay tuned and consult your doctor about whether the vaccine ($400–$500 for three injections) will work for you. And, as with any vaccine, educate yourself about Gardasil’s potential risks and side effects.
While the cost of Gardasil (which protects against four types of HPV, two that cause 90 percent of genital warts and two high-risk types that are responsible for about 70 percent of cervical cancer cases) is covered by school-based public health programs and some insurance and university health-care plans, each province is targeting certain age groups. In Ontario, for example, the vaccination program is focusing on girls in Grade 8. And while there is a test to determine if you have HPV (which can be transmitted through even casual sexual contact), it is administered by a doctor only when a woman has abnormal results on her Pap smear. Besides, this HPV test screens only for 13 high-risk types of HPV (including the two that Gardasil protects you against)—out of the more than 100 types of HPV that exist—so even if you request the test, a negative result doesn’t necessarily mean you’re HPV-free. Keep in mind, too, that new sexual partners will once again put you at risk.
What about ways to reduce your cervical cancer risk? Improve your diet and butt out. HPV is the cause of cervical cancer, but HPV does not always result in cancer, says Dr. Nancy Durand, a gynecologist at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. According to the Canadian Women’s Health Network (CWHN), some other factors that may be linked to the development of cancer include smoking, a lowered immune system and poor nutrition.
Abby Lippman, chair of the policy committee of the CWHN, says most women will get HPV when they become sexually active, and 90 percent will clear the infection within three years without any symptoms or damage to their health whatsoever. This is why Lippman refers to HPV as the common cold of sexually transmitted infections. Similar to a common cold, too, is the fact that it’s a challenge to protect yourself entirely from exposure. Outside of celibacy, there’s no surefire way to avoid HPV.
It remains important, however, to continue using condoms. While they don’t protect you fully from HPV, they can reduce your risk slightly (not to mention protect you from other sexually transmitted infections). Remember, too, that whether you decide to get vaccinated or not, Pap tests are an annual must.