More Education Needed About Role of Cervical Cancer Screening and HPV Vaccines

Armen Hareyan's picture

As a vaccine against the human papillomavirus (HPV) - the virus that causes cervical cancer - becomes more widely available, women need to understand the role of the vaccine and the need for continued screening in order to maximize cervical cancer prevention. That was a key conclusion of women's health advocates gathered at the second annual HPV & Cervical Cancer Summit held last week in Washington, DC.

The Summit was hosted by Women In Government, a non-profit, bi-partisan organization representing women state legislators. The event included state legislators and public health officials from more than 40 states, as well as medical researchers and clinicians, women's health advocates and federal health agency representatives. The event was supported in part by a grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC).

"There was broad consensus among participants at our Summit that we need to ensure widespread access to the HPV vaccine," said Susan Crosby, president of Women In Government. "At the same time, many health advocates urged that when women are educated about the vaccine, they must also be informed about the importance of continued screening, including with advanced technologies, such as HPV testing."


In June 2006, the FDA approved an HPV vaccine for girls and women aged 9- 26. Studies show the vaccine to be 100 percent effective at preventing disease from the HPV types that account for 70 percent of all cervical cancers and 90 percent of genital warts. A second HPV vaccine, shown to be equally as effective against cervical cancer-causing HPV, is expected to be submitted to the FDA in 2007. The federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) has voted to recommend that the HPV vaccine be given routinely to all 11- and 12-year-old girls and to other approved age groups at a clinician's discretion.

The vaccine is also included in the federal Vaccines for Children program, which provides immunization for uninsured and under-insured children.

"The availability of an effective HPV vaccine is a medical triumph and is certain to help save many lives in the United States and worldwide," said Marie Savard, MD, a nationally known internist and women's health expert who participated in the meeting. "At the same time, it is critical that women who get vaccinated do not become complacent about screening. Screening will still be necessary to protect against cervical cancer caused by HPV types not covered by the vaccine, for women already exposed to HPV and for women who do not receive the vaccine."

The Pap test has helped to significantly reduce cervical cancer rates over the last 60 years. However, research shows that it is 51 percent to 85 percent accurate at identifying women with cervical cancer or its early signs, depending upon the type of Pap test used. An FDA-approved HPV test is available and research shows that adding HPV testing to a Pap test in women aged 30 and older can increase a clinician's ability to identify women needing early intervention to 100 percent.

Worldwide, cervical cancer is the second leading cancer-killer of women, with almost a quarter-million deaths each year. In the U.S., the American Cancer Society estimates 9,710 women will be diagnosed with and more than 3,700 women will die of cervical cancer in 2006. According to the CDC, approximately 20 million people are currently infected with HPV, with 6.2 million new infections occurring annually and approximately 80 percent of sexually active women will be infected with HPV by age 50. For 90 percent of infected women, the virus is naturally cleared by the body and becomes undetectable within two years. However, persistent infection with "high-risk" types of HPV can cause cell changes that, untreated, can lead to cervical cancer.