When Dr. James Turner gave his freshman-orientation health talk at the University of Virginia, he spotlighted one thing: a new vaccine against human papilloma virus (HPV), the fastest-spreading sexually transmitted disease and the main cause of cervical cancer and genital warts. After he mentioned that nurses were standing by to give shots to female students, "parents grabbed their kids and said, 'Come on, we're going to get that'," he said.
As school starts, health officials are promoting the HPV vaccine to teens and twentysomethings who rarely see a doctor but need protection the most. A national plan calls for most girls to get it between the ages of 11 and 13 (it's recommended for females ages 9 to 26). Playing catch-up with older teens is tough. Some Los Angeles high schools aim to offer it in area clinics, where it will be free for many through the federal Vaccines for Children (VFC) program. Other schools are mulling similar plans.
But the VFC doesn't cover those over 19, and the vaccine is expensive: it requires three $120 doses. Insurance coverage for this age group is spotty, especially for vaccines. Many colleges say they'll promote the shot and look for ways to make it cheaper. But because HPV is so widespread on campuses, Donald Misch of Northwestern University says he expects most students will want the vaccine. "Sexually transmitted diseases are very high on students' radar," he says. "Even if cervical cancer weren't an issue, nobody wants to get genital warts."