Science: Vaccine Could Prevent Cervical Cancer

Society | November 29, 2002, Friday // 00:00

Throughout much of the 20th century, scientists suspected that sexually transmitted infections cause cancer of the cervix. But the culprit remained hidden until 2 decades ago, when scientists isolated human papillomavirus (HPV) DNA from cervical tumors. That discovery is now paying dividends. In the Nov. 21 New England Journal of Medicine, a team of U.S. scientists reports that new vaccine protects women from long-term viral infections that can lead to cervical cancer. To test the vaccine's effectiveness in a large group, the doctors tracked 1,533 women. They were between the ages of 16 and 25, had never had abnormal cervical cell growth. Half received three injections of the vaccine over 6 months, while the others got shots of an inert substance. After an average of 17 months, none of the women receiving the vaccine tested positive for HPV, but 41 of the women getting the placebo did. During this follow-up period, nine women showed abnormal cell growth on their cervices. They were all in the group that received placebo injections. Responsible for roughly 250,000 worldwide deaths every year, cervical cancer kills more women than any other cancer in developing countries where Pap smears are infrequent. In contrast, it's only the 12th-most-lethal malignancy in U.S. women because most cases are detected and treated.

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