STD Awareness: The Next Generation of Gardasil Is Coming!

noisemakersIt’s January, which means it’s time to festoon our surroundings with streamers, throw around the confetti, break out the noisemakers, and shout Happy Cervical Health Awareness Month!

And, in 2015, we have something huge to celebrate: Last month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Gardasil 9, the next-generation HPV vaccine, which provides broader protection than the current version. Next month, the new and improved vaccine will start to be shipped to health care providers, and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is expected to give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the green light to recommend the vaccine, after which insurance plans and the Vaccines for Children program should start covering it.

The newest version of Gardasil protects against the seven strains of human papillomavirus that together cause 90 percent of cervical cancers.

Why is this news so exciting for people who care about cervical health? Because, while the current version of Gardasil, which debuted in 2006, protects recipients from the two HPV strains that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers, Gardasil 9 will protect against seven strains of HPV that collectively cause 90 percent of cervical cancers. On top of that, both versions of Gardasil protect against the two HPV strains that are together responsible for 90 percent of genital warts.

Gardasil 9 has been shown to be highly effective in clinical studies, and it is safe to use, which means Gardasil just became an even more potent weapon against cancers caused by HPV. Not only that, but vaccination against HPV will also reduce the frequency of precancerous lesions, which are cellular abnormalities that can be treated before progressing into full-fledged cancer. Less pre-cancer means less time, money, and anxiety spent dealing with followup procedures after an abnormal Pap test, for example.

The seven cancer-causing HPV strains that Gardasil 9 protects its recipients from are HPV-16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58. These HPV strains are also known to cause more than 90 percent of anal cancers. HPV is also linked to cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, and throat, which means Gardasil isn’t just a boon to cervical health — it’s a boon to the sexual health of all of us, regardless of whether or not we came equipped with a cervix.

Gardasil is thought to work best when it’s administered before the recipient becomes sexually active, because someone who hasn’t had any sexual contact hasn’t been previously exposed to any HPV strain. But even if you’ve already become sexually active, you probably haven’t been exposed to all nine HPV strains targeted by the vaccine, so it could still be a worthy investment in your future health.

An illustration of HPV's spherical outer shell. Real HPV particles have DNA inside, while the vaccine uses artificially produced empty shells.

An illustration of HPV’s outer shell. Real HPV particles have DNA inside, while the vaccine uses artificially produced empty shells.

Just like the first version, Gardasil 9 is produced with a yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, that has been genetically modified to manufacture viral components called antigens, which train your immune system to recognize the virus. The yeast-produced proteins self-assemble into a perfect replica of HPV’s outer shell — but, unlike a real HPV particle, these shells are empty, housing no viral DNA. The antibodies vaccine recipients produce in response to the impostor viruses protect them from future infection by authentic human papillomavirus — but, without the viral DNA, the vaccine’s virus-like particles cannot cause an infection.

Gardasil 9 will be slightly more expensive than the earlier version of Gardasil, but should also be covered by health insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act’s focus on preventive health care. Like the first version of Gardasil, Gardasil 9 is a three-shot series administered over a period of six months. It is currently FDA approved for females ages 9 to 26, and males ages 9 to 15. Older people can receive the vaccine, but it might not be covered by insurance. The earlier version of Gardasil is approved for males up to age 26.

The U.S. HPV vaccination rate falls far short of public health goals: In 2013, only 37.6 percent of girls and 13.9 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 received all three Gardasil doses — whereas health experts want to see those percentages rise to 80 percent.

Make a New Year’s resolution to arm yourself against HPV when the new and improved Gardasil 9 vaccine becomes available. You’ll not only be making an investment in your own sexual health — you’ll be doing your part to improve public health as well!

If you want to make sure that you get the newest version of Gardasil, ask your health care provider for the “9-valent” vaccine rather than the older “quadrivalent” vaccine — the first will protect you against nine HPV strains while the latter will only protect you against four HPV strains.

More information about HPV and the vaccine is available on the websites for Planned Parenthood and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You can also check out the below links for more information on HPV and Gardasil:

Click here to check out other installments of our monthly STD Awareness series!