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Vaccine May Protect Against Virus that Causes Cervical Cancer

A vaccine has been found to be 100 percent effective in protecting against the virus that causes 50 percent of all cervical cancers, according to a study published today in the New England Journal of Medicine. Sexually transmitted strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV) cause the majority of cervical cancers; this vaccine protects against HPV-16, the most common strain.

In a study of 2,392 young women who were characterized as high-risk for cervical cancer, half received a shot of the vaccine and the other half received placebo shots. Among those who received the vaccine, none developed cancer – while 41 nonvaccinated women did. “It appears to be the real thing,” Dr. Christopher Crum, a pathologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told the Associated Press. “You’re looking at some very compelling evidence that this vaccine will prevent cervical cancer.”

Merck, the company that will market the vaccine, is currently testing another version that could prevent up to 70 percent of cervical cancers, according to the New York Times. The company plans to introduce the newer version in place of the one used in the study in approximately five years. Given in three shots over six months, the vaccine can only be used to prevent cervical cancer not to treat it. There are currently 20 groups around the world working to develop a vaccine that could help those who already have cancer, according to the Wall Street Journal. It is also unknown how long the vaccine will persist, once injected into the body, to fight the disease.

There are 470,000 cases of cervical cancer worldwide annually – with 225,000 women dying from the disease each year. In the US, there are 13,000 cases reported each year with 4,100 deaths. Pap smears are commonly used to detect the disease. However, women in developing countries have little access to these expensive tests. “For individuals in countries with no screening, vaccination is a lifesaver,” Dr. Kathrin Jansen, with Merck Laboratories, told the Times.

Sources:

New York Times 11-21-02; Wall Street Journal 11-21-02; Associated Press 11-21-02

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