If you could take a vaccine that would protect you against cancer, wouldn't you take it? Well, for cervical cancer, there is a vaccine. It protects against a virus called HPV, which can lead to cancer of the cervix. But a new study reports that many women say no to the vaccine.
Cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women, according to the World Health Organization.
It's responsible for more than a quarter-million deaths each year - 85 percent of them in developing countries. Scientists have found that cervical cancer is caused by a sexually-transmitted microbe called HPV, the human papillomavirus, said University of Maryland researcher Kathleen Tracy.
"The human papillomavirus is actually a family of viruses that cause everything from common skin warts to genital warts, and then certain strains of it actually can lead to cervical cancer."
Until a few years ago, the best defense was a pap smear to detect and treat precancerous cells. But giving susceptible women the annual test can be difficult to manage, especially in resource-poor areas.
A vaccine against HPV, which was introduced a few years ago, would seem a much better solution, but only if women get vaccinated.
To see if that was happening, Tracy and her colleagues reviewed medical records of about 10,000 females, ages 9 to 26, at the University of Maryland's medical center in Baltimore who were eligible to get HPV vaccination.
They found that only about 27 percent got vaccinated. The hospital records don't say why three-quarters of the young women chose not to get the vaccine, but Tracy has some educated guesses, based on the short time the vaccine has been on the market.
"It's only been licensed for use in the U.S. since 2006. So I think there's probably a significant number of people who are sitting back and waiting to see how effective is it, what are the major side effects, is it going to come down in price - it's not an inexpensive vaccine," she explained in a telephone interview from the annual research conference of the American Association for Cancer Research, where she presented her study.
Less than one-third of the 27 percent who got the vaccine, got the full series of three doses. Tracy says choosing to get or not get the vaccine is a matter of choice. But "when I see that people are choosing to get it but aren't following through with the dose, it worries me," she said. "That means there are large numbers of women that are unprotected or underprotected, and that's the group that we need to reach."
Technology might provide an answer, and Tracy and her colleagues are preparing a new study to see if a week's worth of daily text (SMS) messages might be a more effective way to get women who start the HPV vaccine to get all three shots.