By Tamera Manzanares
January, recognized as Cervical Health Awareness month, is a good time to highlight measures that can be taken to prevent cervical cancer. This year, more than 12,000 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer and about 4,000 women will die of the disease, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Early detection is the key to preventing cervical cancer, which can result from specific types of a virus known as HPV or human papillomavirus. HPV is common – more than half of sexually active men and women are infected with HPV at some time. Although most women who are infected with HPV will not develop cervical cancer, it is important to have regular screenings to detect any precancerous cell changes.
Screening starts with regular Pap tests, which are sometimes supplemented by HPV testing. A Pap test involves the swabbing of the cervix (opening to the uterus) for a sample of cells, which are evaluated under a microscope for any abnormal changes. A Pap test usually takes place during a pelvic exam. HPV tests detect “high-risk” types of HPV that may cause cancer. An HPV test used in addition to a Pap test and helps health care providers determine which women are at greatest risk for cervical cancer.
Every woman should begin getting Pap tests at age 21, according to guidelines by the American Cancer Society and the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force. HPV is rarely a threat to young women in their teens and 20s; their immune systems usually clear the virus and related cell changes. An HPV test usually is not used for these women unless her Pap test is unclear. HPV tests, in addition to Pap tests, are recommended for women 30 and older because HPV infections in this age group are less likely to clear on their own; both tests are more likely to find abnormal cell changes than either test alone. Women should be screened every three to five years, depending on their age, whether they have had HPV supplemental tests and/or are at a higher risk for cervical cancer and other health conditions they may have.
These guidelines can be confusing. The most important thing to remember is to begin Pap exams at age 21. Your healthcare provider will make recommendations for HPV testing, screening frequency and any other follow up.
HPV and vaccination
HPV is spread through sexual activity. Most people with HPV never develop symptoms or health problems. However, sometimes HPV infections will persist. These can cause serious health problems in both men and women including cervical cancer, vaginal and vulvar cancer, penile cancer, head and neck cancers (men and women), and anal cancer (men and women).
HPV vaccination can help protect against high risk HPV viruses. There are currently three HPV vaccines available. Both are approved for girls and young women; one is approved for boys and young men. Ideally, girls and boys get vaccinated before they are sexually active and exposed to HPV. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends girls and boys receive the three-dose vaccine (given over a period of six months) at ages 11 or 12. Teens and young adults who are sexually active should still get the vaccine, since it may protect against types of HPV they may not have been exposed to. The vaccine is available for young women through age 26 and young men through age 21.