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HIV-Positive Women Respond Well to HPV Vaccine: A Q&A with Erna Milunka Kojic, MD

4/29/2014

suicideErna Milunka Kojic, MD, medical director of the Infectious Diseases and Immunology Center at The Miriam Hospital, talks about an international clinical trial she led that found a vaccine can help most HIV-positive women fight the cancer-causing human papillomavirus (HPV).

Until recently, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine had not been tested in HIV-positive women with compromised immune systems and skeptics questioned its effectiveness and safety. Tell us about your recent clinical trial and what it means for women with HIV?

Until now, the commonly used HPV vaccine Gardasil had not been tested in women with seriously compromised immune systems, as vaccines are often found to be less effective in HIV-positive individuals. Our international clinical trial sought to measure the vaccine’s safety and immune system response in women with HIV aged 13 to 45. We found that HIV-positive women actually respond well to the vaccine even when their immune system is struggling, countering prevailing doubts about the helpfulness of the vaccine and supporting the recommendation of the World Health Organization to vaccinate HIV-positive women. In the vast majority of the 315 volunteers vaccinated over a period of 28 weeks at sites in the United States, Brazil and South Africa, the vaccine built up antibodies against HPV and posed no unusual safety issues. It was found that even older, sexually active women could benefit from vaccination.

What is the link between women with HIV and cervical cancer?

Women with HIV are particularly susceptible to cervical cancer from HPV because their compromised immune systems are less able to clear the virus, underscoring the importance of vaccinating HIV-positive women provided it’s safe and they respond favorably to the vaccine. While our study did not measure the HPV vaccine’s efficacy in preventing cancers, it confirmed that the vaccine produced no more side effects or problems than any vaccine typically does, and is in fact considered a very safe vaccine.

What do you hope will result from your findings?

Now that we have proven that the HPV vaccine is helpful, it is my hope that more doctors will vaccinate female patients with HIV, since HIV-positive women are responsive to the vaccine and experience no unusual adverse side effects.

Learn more about comprehensive HIV and specialty care at The Miriam Hospital.