Ohio State syncronized swimming coach Linda Witter had just returned to Columbus in the fall of 2004 after coaching the U.S. Olympic team to a bronze medal in Athens, Greece. In her mid 50s she was in the best shape of her life, and eager to return to her job at OSU. That's about the time she started experiencing irregular bleeding, and cramping in her abdomen. She had a papsmeare before leaving for the games and already been through menapuase, so she assumed her body was only reacting to stress. She says she returned to her gynocologist for a checkup just in case.
"He basically told 'It could be a lot of things. It could be hormonal, it cold be all kinds of stuff.' He said 'In one out a million, it gets more serious.' Well, it kept on bleeding, and I had to do a biopsy," Witter said. "I went back about 10 days later, and he said 'Honey, you're one in a million. You have cancer."
Witter's cervical cancer was caused by the sexually-transmitted Human Papilloma Virus, or HPV. OSU Medical Center gynocologist David Cohn says HPV is the most common STD in the United States, but cancer cases such as Witter's are rare because HPV sits dormant in most people.
"Despite the fact that HPV is very common in the general population, and almost anyone who has been sexually active has been exposed to the virus, this virus usually goes away, and in almost all women never causes any problems, and very rarely causes cervical cancer," Cohn says.
HPV accounts for about 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. Cervical cancer kills about 3,500 women in the U.S. each year, and about 290,000 worldwide. While both men and women can carry HPV, the virus is rarely harmful to men.
Food and Drug advisers yesterday unanimously endorsed a vaccine that blocks infection of the two strains of HPV responsible for most cases of cervical cancer. Officials with the drug company Merck say the vaccine could slash the number of cervical cancer cases by two-thirds if given to patients before they become sexually active. But some Conservative groups have been hesitant to fully endorse the vaccine. Focus on the Family spokeswoman Linda Klepacki says vaccines for sexually transmitted diseases should not be necessary.
"Focus on the Family affirms that above any availbable health intervention, abstinence until marriage and faithfulness after marriage are the best and primary practices for preventing HPV and all other sexually transmitted infections."
Dr. Hal Wallis of the conservative thinktank Physicians Consortium is quoted in Reason magazine as saying STD vaccines send the message that a person can take a shot and be as sexually promiscuous as they want without consequences. Dr. Cohn disagrees with that statement, and says an HPV vaccine should not replace common sense.
"I think that we still have to recognize that sexual education is critically important, and discussions with our children and with our peers about the appropriate techniques to minimize the risk of infection is critical," Cohn says. "But just vaccinating a child does not mean we give them free license to be promiscuous."
Officials with Physicians Consortium did not respond to interivew requests for this story. The vaccine proposal now awaits full FDA approval, which could come within weeks.