Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

HPV vaccine to be covered by student health insurance

A vaccine that protects against major strains of the virus that causes cervical cancer will be covered by student health insurance starting Sept. 1.

The vaccine, marketed as Gardasil by manufacturer Merck & Co., has been available at the Health and Counseling Center since fall 2006 but was not covered by insurance. Even so, injections of the vaccine against Human Papillomavirus, or HPV, have been “very popular,” health officials say. 

The vaccine costs $130 for each of the three required injections and was administered to 186 women as of June 12.

“It’s going to greatly diminish the number of abnormal Pap smears that we get,” says Dr. Louise McDonald, director of the health center.

Including the HPV vaccine as a health benefit will cause insurance premiums to rise, she notes, but adjustments to other programs have kept the increase to less than nine percent. Coverage that costs $1,010 every six months will cost $1,100 under the plan that begins in September, she says.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every year about 6.2 million people contract the virus, which is mainly spread by sexual contact. It can go undetected for years before erupting into the cell abnormality that leads to cervical cancer, a disease that kills about 3,600 women in the U.S each year and more than 240,000 women worldwide.

Gardasil has been shown effective against two strains of HPV that cause 70 percent of all cervical cancers and two strains that account for 90 percent of genital warts cases, the CDC reports.

CDC recommends the HPV vaccine for females ages 9 to 26, with emphasis on girls 11 to 12. Research indicates the vaccine is most effective in females who get shots before their first sexual experience.

Legislation signed in late May by Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter requires health insurance providers in the state to cover the HPV injections beginning in January. The law does not apply to student health plans, McDonald says, but coverage at DU will adhere to the mandate for on-campus inoculations.

Health officials say there is no cure for HPV, but there are ways of dealing with the health problems it causes. The best preventative is to get regular Pap smears.

At DU’s Health Center, abnormalities occur in about 20 to 25 percent of Pap smears examined, McDonald says, and HPV is the cause of these abnormalities “for the most part.” No cases of cervical cancer have been reported this year.

“If you have a condition like this that’s not picked up and not treated, then you’ll get cervical cancer down the line,” McDonald says.

According to the American Cancer Society, half of all women diagnosed with cervical cancer are between ages 35 and 55 and more than 20 percent are over 65. Cervical cancer occurs in Hispanic women twice as often as in non-Hispanic white women and in black women 50 percent more frequently than in non-Hispanic whites.

The five-year survival rate for early detection is 92 percent and the death rate continues to decline by nearly 4 percent per year. The cancer rarely occurs in females under 20, the CDC reports. Tests are under way to determine Gardasil’s effectiveness in males.

Read the DU Today story, Vaccine reaction is life changing for alumna’s family.

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