William Tew, an assistant attending medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, who focuses on gynecologic cancers, says
of older women getting the vaccine: "I don't personally recommend it. With that said, we don't know. The studies looking at this have been exceptionally
At the very least, he pointed out, research has shown the vaccine to be safe. The most common side effects include headache, fever, dizziness and
irritation around the injection site. "So I counsel my patients that if you are going to go for the HPV vaccine, realize that it may not offer any benefit,
but it is likely safe," Tew said.
Many doctors say older women get a better bang for their prevention buck just by getting regular Pap smears -- which they should continue to do even if
they get vaccinated.
What about the newly single 28-year-old who has had only two, long-term relationships? Or the 50-year-old divorcee who starts dating again after 20 years
Dorothy Furgerson, chief medical officer for California's Planned Parenthood Mar Monte chain, said she would recommend the vaccine only to an older woman
who has had no more than four sexual partners.
The lack of clarity applies to guys, too. Timm Michaud, a 31-year-old web developer in San Francisco, told me he inquired about the HPV vaccine at two
clinics while getting routine STD tests in his late 20s.
"Both of them kind of gave me the brushoff, like, 'Oh, it's only something that girls have to worry about,' or, 'Oh, it's only approved for people up to
26,'" Michaud recalled. Then workers at a travel immunization clinic offered it to him as part of a battery of shots before a trip to South Africa, and he
jumped on it.
"As a guy, I want to do something to protect my partners," he said. "I think it's a copout to say you don't really need it because you probably already
have it, when you don't really know."
Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society and no great fan of overmedication, doesn't buy that thinking.
"The likelihood that you have a 30-year-old, who is not a Catholic nun, who has not been exposed to HPV is really incredibly small," he said. As for
vaccinating that woman, "If you're an individual who's very, very worried about this, my first thought is there are a lot of other things in health that I
would be much more concerned about."
While cervical cancer causes about 4,000 deaths a year in the U.S., for instance, lung cancer causes 160,000.
My conclusion? By the time the vaccine was getting lots of press, I'd had a number of relationships that didn't last, so I may not have been the best
candidate to benefit. Still, population-wide statistics reveal little about the actual health of one individual. I might not have been exposed to all four
strains in the vaccine.
I went to Planned Parenthood and shelled out the money: $525 for the three shots over six months (my particular clinic was agreeable to this; Planned
Parenthood will not do it in all cases).
Will the immunization ultimately protect me or my partner from cancer? Who knows. For me, it was worth a shot.