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FDA Approves Use of Vaccine for Cervical Cancer

An interview with a gynecologist looks at Gardasil, a new vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in girls and women to prevent four strains of a virus that can cause cervical cancer.

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  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Cervical cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death among women worldwide, killing more than 250,000 a year. And while widespread use of pap smears has reduced its toll in the U.S., it still causes more than 3,700 deaths a year here.

    Yesterday, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first vaccine to prevent the disease. And here to tell us about it is Dr. Elizabeth Garner, a gynecological oncologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. For the record, she has no affiliation with Merck, the company that is marketing the new vaccine, called Gardasil.

    Dr. Garner, I think it would help, first, to explain to us how cervical cancer is caused so we can understand how the vaccine itself works.

  • DR. ELIZABETH GARNER, Gynecological Oncologist:

    Certainly. The vast majority of cervical cancers are caused by a virus known as human papilloma virus. This is a very common virus. By the age of 50, probably about 80 percent of women have been infected at one point in time during their lives.

    Most women don't get any problems from human papilloma virus, but a minority of women, for reasons that aren't entirely clear, develop precancerous changes on the cervix, which, if left untreated, will develop ultimately or can develop ultimately into cervical cancer.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So the vaccine blocks the infection that, in some cases, leads to cervical cancer?

  • DR. ELIZABETH GARNER:

    Exactly. Right. And the vaccine is made of these small particles that are called virus-like particles that, to a woman's immune system, look exactly like the virus, so as if she has been infected, but they don't actually contain any of the actual viral material.

    So, when giving the virus-like particles, one can elicit an immune reaction that then can prevent the changes that develop in the cervix.

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