A healthy first step in NH

Nashua Telegraph, January 2008

 It’s nice to be first.

New Hampshire added another first to its resume this week, becoming the first state in the nation to provide girls age 11 to 18 with free vaccinations of a newly approved drug that could protect them against some forms of cervical cancer.

The vaccine, which prevents the human papillomavirus, is considered a breakthrough in cancer prevention. It blocks infections from some major strains of HPV, the nation’s most common sexually transmitted disease. More than 20 million people in the United States have HPV, and 6.2 million more get infected annually, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most infections don’t cause any symptoms and go away on their own, although the virus also can lead to cervical cancer and genital warts.

According to the American Cancer Society, 9,700 women nationwide will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2006 and 3,700 will die.

The vaccine was approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration earlier this year. It protects against four major types of HPV, which cause about 70 percent of cervical cancer.

State officials said they hope to vaccinate young girls who have not been sexually active, since those who have already been exposed to HPV won’t be protected by the vaccine.

Through its Vaccine for Children program, the state currently funds free immunizations for a variety of diseases for children through age 18. The program, which is funded by federal grants and private insurers, also pays for vaccinations against diptheria, Hepatitis A and B, polio and measles, among others.

The new vaccine, which must be administered in three doses within six months, costs about $320. The state has budgeted enough money next year to vaccinate 17,000 girls, about 25 percent of those eligible.

Considering the costs associated with treating cervical cancer – which are invariably passed along to all of us through high health insurance rates – the vaccination program makes sound financial sense. Preventive medicine is almost always significantly cheaper than treating an actual disease.

New Hampshire doctors can begin ordering the vaccine this week. The first shipment to the state should arrive in January.

Yes, being first is something to be proud of – especially when it comes to public health.

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