Avoiding cauliflower and cancer

We wear seat belts before learning to drive a car, why shouldn’t we receive the Gardasil vaccination when we are young? The value of this vaccine must be acknowledged.

He can’t be seen with the naked eye, but he loves your body. And unless you’re blossoming cauliflowers below, you may not know he is using you.

In truth, he is so small it takes an electron microscope to clearly see him. A virus usually hitches a ride into the body via the nose, mouth or skin. He then takes over cells and dismantles them much like a scrap metal business. Entering the cell, the virus begins his rampage; he reproduces by utilizing pieces of the “cell’s machinery” if you will, to duplicate himself.

Battling this year’s Minnesota winter, individuals begrudgingly carry boxes of Kleenex to class and avoid sneezing all over bus railings, and on door handles. It’s a good thing subzero temperatures mean covered hands – giving those who haven’t yet caught that barking cough some kind of fighting chance. But according to a recent study by the American Cancer Society, many say the number of people with the common cold can be equated to the 50 percent of college age women who were found to have acquired an HPV strain within the first four years of becoming sexually active. According to the study, more than 6 million are infected every year and nearly all of them are 15-25 years old.

So there’s another STD in the world, whoop-de-do. We’ve been hearing about them since the ’80s. Never mind that this one is associated with 99 percent of all cervical cancer cases, and is believed to be a necessary factor in its development. Oh, and cervical cancer is also one of the most deadly cancers known.

HPV, or the human papillomavirus, is actually a DNA-based virus with more than 100 strains. Thirty to 40 of these are transmitted sexually (specifically through skin-to-skin contact) and nine have been identified as “high risk” strains. The National Cancer Institute states specifically that strains 16 and 18 have been linked to cervical cancer. Furthermore, the institution reports that 4,000 women die from the cancer each year. Strains 6 and 11 are the cause of more than 90 percent of genital warts. Remember that slideshow of STDs you saw in high school health class? The American Cancer Society is careful to remind its readers that those photos resembling cauliflower are typically genital warts from HPV.

While some individuals with a strain of the virus will experience these persistent infections, the vast majorities of HPV strains are not high risk, and lend no symptoms of infection because the body’s immune system has controlled and impeded the virus’s reproduction. Though these carriers don’t have to worry about warts, they may be in a more problematic predicament. Many who have the virus do not even know they carry it, and both men and women can still pass it on to a partner. While condoms have been known to reduce the risk of cervical cancer, their prevention of the spread of HPV is unknown.

So maybe as 20- or 30-somethings we have already made choices we can’t change. But we can change our caution. STD and cancer research is continually developing, offering new medications and a remarkable new vaccine. But what about the teens, the ones still in high school who are seeing those awful images as a scare tactic?

On Tuesday, The Associated Press reported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study in Chicago – the first of its kind – that stated one in four teenage girls ages 14-19 have at least one STD. The sample was conducted on nationally representative data on 838 girls from a national health survey in 2004, and HPV was the most common STD. While this seems shocking for most parents and reader of the study, Dr. Margaret Blythe, an adolescent medical specialist at the Indiana University School of Medicine said, it may be overwhelming, but it’s nothing short of what practitioners see in their clinics every day.

However, teens who are still under the care of their parents should be one of the at-risk groups of HPV still widely accessible to education and prevention. Gardasil, released by the FDA in June of 2006, is the only known vaccine that might prevent the development of the HPV viruses. The drug helps young women become “one less” victim of cervical cancer, and prevents the accumulation of four of the most dangerous and common strains of HPV: 16 and 18, associated with cervical cancer and 6 and 11, which are responsible for warts. The problem is that it is recommended girls receive the vaccine between the age of 11 and 12, far before most think about becoming sexually active. While doctors hope the vaccine will generate healthy conversation between parents and children, many parents believe the vaccine encourages sex. Just as we don’t like to consider the love dance that occurred between our parents to create us, parents don’t want to think about their children in such a position. Why then, they argue, would an 11-year-old need a vaccine if she won’t become sexually active for a number of years? Or, better yet, if she won’t have sex until she is married?

But why do we wear seat belts before we’ve learned to drive a car?

To borrow an old cliché, we’re better safe than sorry. The vaccine only works for those who don’t already have HPV. According to the FDA, women, until they are 26 years of age can be effectively vaccinated, and new studies are showing an effect through women who are 45. This is one time that following the trend might not be condemned.

Kelsey Kudak welcomes comments at [email protected]