Q&A: Helen Morrow 

Acting Health Officer for the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department

What if doctors could prevent cancer with a vaccine? In some cases, they can.

On June 29th, a federal panel with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unanimously recommended Gardasil, a vaccine manufactured by Merck & Co., for most types of cervical cancer.

The vaccine targets Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer, the second-most-common cancer in women worldwide. HPV is usually sexually transmitted and can spread even when couples use a condom. At least half of all sexually active people have acquired an HPV infection at some time.

The CDC panel recommended that females ages 11 to 26 get vaccinated, but that idea hasn't been universally accepted. The Flyer talked with health officer Helen Morrow to find out more. -- by Shea O'Rourke

Flyer: Will the Local Health Department offer the HPV vaccine?

Morrow: We don't have it yet. We should have it soon for the "Vaccines for Children" program. For purchase immediately by the paying public, I can't tell you -- it's a very expensive vaccine. It's $120 per dose simply to purchase, and it's a three-dose series. And then there are medical fees.

Why are some conservative groups protesting this vaccine?

I can only assume, having not spoken with anybody in these groups, that they're feeling that it gives some tacit approval of sexual intercourse. I think one of the things is that they don't want it to be a required vaccine for school.

Is there an HPV vaccine for males?

They have done some testing on it. Merck, the company that makes Gardasil, is scheduled to finish its study by 2008, so it may eventually be approved for males. Obviously, a female has to get HPV from somewhere, and it has also been related to certain cancers in men: penile, anal, and neck cancers.

When should girls get vaccinated?

The more sexual partners you have, the greater your chances of acquiring HPV. Once you become sexually active, most people have at least a 50 percent chance of getting it. Adolescents are especially vulnerable to HPV because it likes adolescent cervix. The vaccine is approved for down to age 9, and right now they're saying to give it [to] 11- to 12-year-olds because we're already giving other shots then. You can get the vaccine up to age 26.

Do you think this information will be presented in sex ed. programs?

I can only speculate that someone might stand up at a PTA meeting and protest it, and that has happened. You'll have people on both sides of the fence. In 20 years, are we going to see some 50-year-old who sues her parents because she didn't get the HPV vaccine and ended up with cervical cancer? Who knows?

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