Cervical Cancer and Beyond: The Dangers of HPV

Recently, the Food and Drug Administration endorsed a new vaccine which, in the long run, may prevent cervical cancer.

Federal regulators found Merck & Co.'s new vaccine Gardasil is effective in protecting against human papillomavirus (HPV).

Here's the best part: specific strains of HPV are linked to about 70 percent 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, a three-dose vaccine approved for females ages 9 to 26, could prevent young adults from acquiring this sexually transmitted disease, thus preventing cervical cancer in later years.

In the wake of the approval, many states pushed to mandate that girls receive this vaccine. The result is a political backlash as some groups fight a mandatory vaccination. Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico recently said he will veto a bill requiring the vaccine for girls entering the sixth grade, although he had indicated his support for the bill before it passed through the legislature.

Gov. Richardson is not the only politician facing opposition from parents and doctors who do not want a vaccine for a sexually transmitted disease to be required by law.

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.

For more great information on living healthy through every decade of life, click here to check out Dr. Manny's book The Check List (Harper Collins, 2007).

Dr. Manny Alvarez is the managing editor of health news at FOXNews.com, and is a regular medical contributor on the FOX News Channel. He is chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Additionally, Alvarez is Adjunct Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New York University School of Medicine in New York City.