Yesterday was quite a day for women's health!
The FDA endorsed a new vaccine which, in the long run, may prevent cancer. Merck convinced federal regulators that its new vaccine, called Gardasil, is effective in preventing exposure to human papillovirus (HPV).
Here's the best part: specific strains of HPV are linked to about 70% of cervical cancer worldwide. This type of cancer remains a significant killer of women — about 3,900 women die from the disease in the U.S. each year. Gardasil, which Merck is hopping to introduce into the marketplace this year, could prevent young adults from acquiring this sexually transmitted disease, thus preventing cervical cancer in later years.
Since the news came out yesterday, I noticed that many public opinions or reports didn't seem very excited about this medical breakthrough. Yesterday's excitement about Gardasil lasted as long as a lightning strike. So I started thinking, which for me is always dangerous. I think the whole story is not being fully presented, or perhaps some medical reporters are missing the daily struggles that women with an HPV infection — or cervical cancer for that matter — have to deal with. So let me tell you a little story.
Once upon a time, there was a patient X . This 27-year-old, healthy-looking female came to see me as a new pregnant patient. Excitement was in the air; she was recently married, and very happy to start a family. As I started asking her questions about her medical history, she informed me that in college she had an abnormal pap smear. She said she was treated, told it was not a major concern, and off she went. Two years later, she had another abnormal pap smear showing the presence of HPV. This time, her doctors had to remove a portion of her cervix. She said she healed well and had no problems thereafter. Fast forward to her visit to my office: After her initial physical exam with me, all seemed in order. The pregnancy was going fine until her 24th week, when she came to the office and complained of pelvic pressure. It turned out she was about to have a premature delivery. So what happened? What went wrong? Her cervix had been so damaged by her previous procedure and weakened by the HPV infection that it opened up without her realizing what was going on. After 24 hours of intense hospital management, she delivered a severely premature infant weighting no more than 1 pound.
Although I just created this story, hundreds of real stories like this one play out, not just in U.S. hospitals, but around the world. HPV is not only associated with cervical cancer. Thousands of women deal every day with repetitive pap smears, biopsies and surgical procedures, all due to the damage that this virus can cause. These procedures not only create tremendous stress and pain, but can also lead to infertility and premature labor.
We all need to evaluate this new vaccine — single, married, with kids, planning or not planning to have kids. Consider all the facts about HPV, because this virus truly affects our future generations.
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Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Click here for more information on Dr. Manny's work with Hackensack University Medical Center. Visit AskDrManny.com for more.