Saturday, March 13, 2010

Should Older Women be Vaccinated Against HPV?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all girls and women between the ages of 11 and 26 be vaccinated against the strains of human papillomaviruses (HPVs) that cause cervical cancer. But what about older women; wouldn’t they benefit as well?

The answer appears to be no, or at least not very much. A study of over 9,000 Costa Rican women conducted over a seven-year period found that older women (over 40) tend to get fewer new HPV infections. They also found that HPV infections do not progress towards cancer any faster in older women than in younger women.

Cancer develops in only a small fraction of women who have an HPV infection during their lifetimes, and most HPV infections clear up on their own within a couple of years anyway. Even among women who do develop cervical cancer as a result of an HPV infection, it takes about 25-30 years on average for the cancer to develop fully to the metastatic stage. Therefore, vaccinating older women is not of much use. The ideal time to vaccinate women and girls is before they become sexually active so that they never have an HPV infection in the first place.

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