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Cancer breakthrough: Preventing cervical cancer with a vaccine

Doctors have long dreamed of being able to prevent cancer with a vaccine. And today that dream is closer to reality: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved a vaccine that will help protect against cervical cancer. The vaccine, Gardasil, protects against four strains of human papillomavirus (HPV), the strains that have been found to cause 70 percent of all cervical cancers.

The vaccine involves three shots over a six-month period. It is best for women to get the vaccine before they are exposed to these HPV strains through sexual activity. But females who are sexually active should still be vaccinated.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends it for females ages 11 to 26, but girls as young as 9 years old can receive the vaccine at their healthcare provider’s discretion.

Gardasil is the only vaccine available intended to prevent cancer by protecting women against HPV—the most common sexually transmitted disease (STD) in America. The four strains of HPV this vaccine protects against can also cause precancerous genital lesions and genital warts. Because Gardasil doesn’t protect against less common strains that cause 30 percent of cervical cancer or other STDs, women still need to protect themselves by practicing safe sex and getting regular Pap tests to spot precancerous changes in the cervix.