What is Gardasil?
Cervical cancers are largely caused by a particular virus called HPV (human papillomavirus). This is a highly infectious agent which is more commonly known to cause sexually transmitted genital warts. HPV can have far more serious consequences however, and is known to be responsible for at least 70% of cervical cancers, and a number of other cancers including anal and vulvar cancers.
Fortunately because these cancers are caused by HPV, they can be prevented through effective methods of vaccination against the virus. In this article we look at Gardasil, a vaccine developed by Merck & Co. which is currently being used by many healthcare authorities across the world, including the NHS.
The Gardasil Vaccine
Gardasil is a virus which immunises against 4 different strains of HPV. It protects against HPV 6, 11, 16, and 18, the first two are responsible for genital warts, while the latter are known to cause cervical cancers.
Gardasil’s applications as a prophylactic agent have reduced the incidence of cervical cancer, although it will still be a few years before the extent of the vaccine’s effects can be observed.
Gardasil is not only used amongst sexually active women, in fact the drug is also used in men to protect against both genital warts, and penile and anal cancers. At present licensing for the use of Gardasil has been granted for men aged between 9 and 15 years and women between the ages of 9 and 26 years.
How is Gardasil administered?
In the UK HPV vaccination is offered to teenage girls, and particularly recommended to girls and women who are sexually active.
Gardasil is given as an injectable vaccine in three separate doses given within a six month period. In that time, doses are given at to month intervals, and all 3 doses are needed to confer adequate immunity against HPV.
What kind of vaccine is Gardasil?
Gardasil belongs to a class of vaccines known as recombinant vaccines. These are unlike traditional vaccines in that they don’t require or contain any live or dead virus. Instead, genetic material from HPV is used to produce proteins identical to those found on the surface of the actual virus. These proteins are unique to the virus, and act as a marker signalling the presence of a foreign agent to the body, which in turn signals an immune response.
This type of vaccination offers many advantages, and is being used to develop more vaccines against viruses and bacteria of concern.
How effective is Gardasil?
Gardasil is an extremely effective therapy that has been shown by the National Cancer Institute to prevent virtually any cancer formation caused by the strains of HPV against which the vaccine protects. Immunity has been shown to persist strongly 4 years after vaccination.
Gardasil has also been shown to prevent some cancer formation at the hands of other risky HPV strains. Despite this efficacy it is important to note that Gardasil does not protect against all types of HPV, and that some of these strains can cause cancers. Ultimately a combination of preventative Gardasil therapy alongside regular screening is the best way to ensure your health.
How safe is Gardasil?
Like all vaccines, Gardasil was thoroughly tested and examined prior to its release into general use. Since its introduction into the childhood vaccination programme (replacing the alternative HPV vaccine Cervarix) in the UK the vaccine has been carefully monitored for safety and efficacy. Thus far Gardasil has proven to be a safe and successful HPV vaccine.
Gardasil’s safety can be attributed to the nature of the vaccine. Because no actual viruses, dead or alive, are used, the risks associated with alternative vaccination technologies are not a concern with Gardasil.
What are the side effects of Gardasil?
Gardasil only causes a handful of side effects, one of which is fairly typical of all vaccines and injectable therapies: some soreness and swelling around the site of injection.
Gardasil is known to cause fainting more than other injections, and patients are advised to stay seated for at least a quarter of an hour after receiving the injection.
Other common side effects are, again, fairly typical of vaccines in general: fatigue, malaise, and muscle pain. Some more serious side effects have been observed, however these are extremely rare and have yet to be directly linked to the vaccine itself. When millions of doses of a vaccine are applied, there is always a chance of some illness befalling some of the recipients, however that doesn’t necessarily mean that the vaccine is responsible. Thus far there has been no convincing evidence to cause doubt with regards to the health and safety of Gardasil.
HPV vaccination initiatives can potentially cause a huge reduction in the rate of cervical cancer incidence in the world. This has many far reaching public health consequences, not the least of which being that the more extensive vaccination is, the harder it becomes for a virus to survive and infect people within a population.
It may take some time before the benefits Gardasil offers can be clearly observed, however it is undeniable that a prevention campaign through vaccination can have significant public health benefits. These include cost-effectiveness as prevention spares the NHS the cost of the long term and intensive treatment involved in cancer care.
Again it is important to reiterate the fact that while highly successful as an immunisation technique, Gardasil does not guarantee protection against the myriad of different HPV strains that exist. Ultimately preventative programmes are best supported by regular screening to ensure good health.
These screening tests are usually very quick, accurate, and convenient, and ensure that you do not suffer unwanted infection at the hands of an HPV strain for which you have not been immunised.
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