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Comment: A controversial jab or a wonderful opportunity?

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This year will see the introduction of the most remarkable yet unusual vaccine into the national immunisation schedule for many years. The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine will be the most expensive vaccine in the UK immunisation programme. It costs approximately £80 per dose, and recipients will need three doses to be protected.

It has been found to be one of the most effective vaccines ever developed (Ault et al, 2007) and it is the first vaccine with the specific aim of preventing cervical cancer.

However, the benefits of this massive and costly immunisation programme may not be evident for many years to come. The youngest girls to be vaccinated will not be in their 20s for 8–10 years and cervical cancer is rarely seen in women under the age of 20 (National Statistics, 2007).

There are many challenges to implementing this innovative, exciting programme. The cohort due to receive the vaccine are young women, the youngest aged 12–13 years.

Inevitably, the vaccine is linked to the sensitive issue of sexual activity. HPV in the genital area is spread through sexual contact, although sexual intercourse is not necessary for transmission, and the virus can spread via hands and skin contact.

Concerns have been expressed about introducing this vaccine in such a young and largely sexually naive group. However, some who work in the fields of teenage pregnancy may say that age 12 is too late; some girls may already be sexually active and infected with HPV before they can benefit from the vaccine.

Delivering this vaccine to girls in the target age groups, particularly those no longer at school, will be a challenge.

But healthcare professionals should rise to that challenge and relish their involvement in the beginnings of a wonderful opportunity to prevent over 2,000 cases and 400 deaths from cervical cancer each year.

The message to girls, young women, their parents and guardians should be that this vaccine prevents horrible, debilitating and deadly cervical cancer.

Pauline MacDonald, ARRC, MSc, BSc, RGN, is independent nurse consultant, Infection Matters Limited, Wolverhampton.

Ault, K.A., FUTURE II Study Group (2007) Effect of prophylactic human papillomavirus L1 virus-like-particle vaccine on risk of cervical intraepithelial neoplasia grade 2, grade 3, and adenocarcinoma in situ: a combined analysis of four randomised clinical trials. The Lancet; 369: 1861–1868.

National Statistics (2007) Cancer Registrations in England, 2005.

To catch up with Pauline MacDonald’s latest blog on infection control matters click here

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