The number of young women getting regular Pap tests has dropped quite significantly in Australia, where Merck’s Gardasil vaccine has been administered to almost all girls aged 12-13 via a school-based program. Women up to the age of 26 have also been able to receive the three-shot HPV vaccine free of charge through a now-ended catch-up program.
Health authorities are concerned about the ten percent drop in screenings among 25-29 year olds. The problem, they believe, may be that young women have been “lulled into a false sense of security” by Gardasil, which is advertised as a vaccine against cervical cancer.
Merck’s human papillomavirus vaccine actually only protects against the two HPV strains that cause 65-70 percent of cervical cancer, so it’s essential that women continue to get regular screenings. It’s particularly important because replacement disease, whereby other strains of the virus fill the biological niche left by the two vaccine-relevant strains, may well become an issue. And so far, although the vaccine has proved very effective against the vaccine-relevant strains, overall cervical abnormality rates have dropped by only 17-45 percent.
Regular Pap smears alone can eliminate at least 90 percent of cervical cancers. When a woman gets an HPV test along with the smear, there’s very little chance that cervical cancer will sneak up on her. (See here .) Women are advised to go for screenings every 1-3 years; screenings are also important because doctors will usually check for breast cancer and other health issues at the same time.
All in all, it’s hardly surprising that Australian health officials are "concerned." And if you or your daughter have had the Gardasil shots and have shelved regular exams, well, don't, is all I can say.
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