Although the recently developed cervical-cancer vaccine, known as Gardasil, has been heavily marketed to preteen and teen girls as well as young women in their early to mid twenties, it has not gained a foothold among the population of older women. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration currently approves the vaccine only for girls and women aged 9 to 26. According to the Centers for Disease Control, this is because the vaccine was widely tested on younger girls and women, for whom it was deemed safe and effective.

One issue with Gardasil is that it is effective only if someone has not already contracted the human papilloma virus, or HPV, which can cause genital warts and cervical cancer. Doctors have expressed the hope of reaching a large number of teenagers and young women before they ever become sexually active. While three out of four women who are sexually active eventually contract HPV, in most cases the virus goes away on its own. But in a small number, it progresses to cervical cancer. According to the National Institutes of Health, the disease kills 3,870 women yearly in the U.S. and more than 300,000 worldwide. The HPV virus also can cause cancer of the anus, penis, mouth and neck.

Vaccinating women while they're still young enough to be protected makes sense. But some doctors believe that older women, such as those who are recently divorced and might become sexually active with new partners after many years with the same partner, would benefit just as much from Gardasil as their daughters would. And a recent Colombian study published in the medical journal The Lancet confirms that Gardasil is indeed safe and effective in women ages 24 to 45. According to the study, which was financed by Merck, the Gardasil manufacturer, women in that age group who received the vaccine were much less likely to become infected with HPV than those who received a placebo vaccine. More than 1,900 women received the vaccine, with about the same number receiving the placebo. The study also revealed that the vaccine is more than 90 percent effective in preventing genital warts in men.



The Lancet,

The U.S. Library of Medicine,