Guarding Against STDs

Andrew Wickerham

A new tool in the effort to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted disease is making waves on college campuses nationwide. Merck and Co.’s vaccine, Gardasil, protects against four strains of Human Papillomavirus (HPV), a virus known to be the leading cause of cervical cancer and genital warts. The virus is of particular concern in young people.

Amongst the college-age students, HPV is the most common STD,” Adjunct Professor of the Health Sciences and Director of Student Health Services (SHS) Dr. Merrill Miller said. “HPV infection in men and women is not rare on this campus or anywhere there are groups of people.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 6.2 million Americans contract HPV each year and approximately 50 percent of sexually active men and women will get HPV at some point in their lives. Not all of the 100-plus strains of HPV cause cancer, but the virus nevertheless results in approximately 10,000 cervical cancers each year and nearly 4,000 deaths.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Gardasil last June for use in women and girls ages nine through 26. The vaccine is administered as a series of three injections, given at timed intervals over a period of six months. Locally, it is in stock at SHS and at one pharmacy in downtown Hamilton.

“I would say we’ve given it to at least 50 students [at Colgate]” Miller said, “though not necessarily all three doses, as schedules vary.”

Even more students are considering getting the vaccine.

“I think it’s nice how open and aware Colgate is to these issues,” first-year Alexandra Snell said, adding that she is interested in starting the Gardasil series at school.

While the vaccine is not currently FDA-approved for use in men, men do play a major role in transmission of the disease.

“It’s clear to me that [men] are increasingly more attuned to HPV,” Associate Director of SHS Dr. Stephen Jackowski said. “I often see that STD being the sole reason that brings a man in, however they’ve heard of it.”

According to Jackowski and CDC, studies are underway that may result in the vaccine being licensed for use in men.

Despite the protections offered by Gardasil, the vaccine has generated a storm of controversy.

“It got approved last June, and it’s been a wildfire of discussion,” Miller said. “There are some societal-religious issues that this vaccine brings up.”

In Texas, Republican Governor Rick Perry’s order that, beginning in the fall of 2008, all girls entering the sixth grade receive the vaccine led to a legislative battle over what some see as a measure condoning sexual activity in youth. Perry contends the issue is a public health matter, but the debate continues. Approximately 30 other state legislatures, including New York’s, are now grappling with the issue.

Another major concern is of a financial nature. At $120 per dose, Gardasil is an expensive proposition for the millions of Americans without health insurance. Even for the insured, cost may be a hurdle unless states require the vaccine, which would force insurance companies to cover the treatment.

At Colgate, SHS began recommending the vaccine for all women this year, regardless of sexual activity.

“We think anything that is available that will reduce risk is great,” Miller said. “But of course, this does include making safe choices, especially in light of the 20 or so other STDs out there.”