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7 Medical Breakthroughs for Women

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1. Cervical Cancer Vaccine

Late last spring, the FDA approved a miraculous new vaccine that's nearly 100 percent effective in destroying the viruses responsible for approximately 70 percent of all cervical cancers, the second leading cause of cancer death in women worldwide. Called Gardasil, the vaccine prevents infection from four common types of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted microbe for which there is no treatment. HPV is so widespread that about 20 million Americans are infected with it. Although the virus is usually harmless and clears up on its own, two strains of HPV cause genital warts, and two other very aggressive types are responsible for the majority of all cervical cancers, which kill 233,000 women worldwide each year. (According to a new study, consistent use of condoms may also protect against HPV.)

The vaccine has been approved for women and girls ages 9 to 26, though researchers say it works best in those who are not yet sexually active. (The vaccine can't kill HPV once the infection takes hold, which is why it's important to inoculate girls early.) Gardasil is given as three shots over a six-month period, for a total cost of $360. (As we went to press, it was not yet determined whether health insurance will cover it.)

Ongoing studies are testing whether the vaccine will help women in their 30s and 40s. "By age 30, many women have been exposed to HPV, usually in their teens and twenties, just after the onset of sexual activity," explains Debbie Saslow, PhD, a geneticist and director of breast and gynecologic cancers for the American Cancer Society in Atlanta. "That's why Gardasil has been approved for younger people. But a woman who has been infected with one or two types of HPV but not the cancer-causing strains may still benefit." One study shows that another vaccine in development may be effective for women up to age 55; more results are expected to be announced later in the year.

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