Tackling a virus

March 05, 2007

Anew study reconfirms that millions of young American women ages 14 to 24 are infected with the virus that can cause cervical cancer. More young women should be protected against the virus, but there's no need to mandate a promising vaccine at this time.

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the country, infecting more than 33 percent of women by age 24 and about 25 percent of women under 60. The new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 7.5 million teenage girls and young women carry the virus.

Immunizing young women against the virus is possible with a new vaccine developed by Merck that was approved in June by the Food and Drug Administration for females ages 9 to 26. Merck had been pushing for states to require vaccinations for middle school girls - a push that was successful in Texas - but recently backed off.

A legislative proposal to require the vaccine in Maryland was wisely withdrawn before it could be considered by the General Assembly. The state is still absorbing the lessons of its recent efforts to immunize middle-schoolers against chicken pox and hepatitis B. Given the difficulties of documenting and making sure that students - particularly those in Baltimore and Prince George's County - had those required shots, another mandated vaccine is simply unwise at this time.

That's not to say that the vaccine doesn't offer promising protection against a prevalent sexually transmitted disease and against two strains of HPV that account for about 70 percent of cervical cancers worldwide. But in most cases, the natural immune system clears the STD in a matter of weeks. And routine Pap smear screenings have led to earlier detection and fewer deaths among women with cervical cancer.

In the absence of a mandate, or until the vaccine is more widely available and more affordable, public health and school officials can still rely on an old-fashioned education and information campaign to let more young women know about the risks of HPV and how to avoid them.

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