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January is National Cervical Health Awareness Month


More than 11,000 new cases of cervical cancer were diagnosed in 2009, a disease that is most often caused by a common virus, the human papillomavirus (HPV). To help raise awareness of this cancer, the US Congress has designated January as Cervical Health Awareness Month.

Many people are not aware that cervical cancer is largely preventable, as it is nearly always caused by the sexually transmitted virus, HPV. Yet this preventable cancer will be the cause of death in nearly 4,000 women in the United States in 2010. Recent research has also indicated that HPV can cause cancers of the mouth, anus, head, and neck in both men and women.

Even though most men and women contract a HPV infection during their lifetime, the majority of the infections are benign and disappear by themselves. When they do not, however, they persist and can result in a slow-growing cancer that often presents no symptoms for many years.

Of the more than 100 known HPVs, only about 15 are high-risk viruses. Cervical cancer is caused by high-risk HPVs, and the risks of acquiring them increase as the number of one’s sexual partners increases. However, because the viruses can cause slow-growing cancer, people who have been in longtime monogamous relationships may discover they have cervical cancer or another cancer associated with HPV decades after first contracting the virus.

Pap Test Screening
The first line of defense against cervical cancer is Pap test screening. Such tests are recommended for women every year beginning at age 21. This is the recommendation of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), which issued its new recommendations in November 2009. Prior to that time, the ACOG had recommended that women begin screening for cervical cancer within three years after the onset of sexual activity.

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Yet, according to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, 11 percent of women in the United States report that they do not have their Pap test screenings, and many women are not aware what HPV is or what its relationship is to cervical cancer. The ACOG reports that over the past 30 years, Pap test screening has decreased the cervical cancer incidence rate by half.

Regular Pap tests can detect most cell changes caused by HPV long before they become cancer. Early detection of these precancers can be treated effectively before they become malignant. The National Cervical Cancer Coalition reports that in 2009, more than half of the women who were diagnosed with cervical cancer either never had a Pap test or had not been screened within the last five years.

Cervical Cancer Vaccine
The cervical cancer vaccines Gardasil and Cervarix have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The vaccines are designed to block two cancer-causing types of HPV, types 16 and 18, which address the root cause of the cancer. These HPV types are responsible for about 70 percent of cervical cancers.

The vaccine is recommended for girls ages 11 to 12, although it can be given to girls as young as 9. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend a catch-up immunization for girls and women ages 13 to 26 who have not been vaccinated or who have not completed the full vaccine series. The vaccine is given as a series of three injections over a six-month period.

The designation of January as National Cervical Health Awareness Month will hopefully encourage women to schedule their Pap test screening for cervical cancer and to become more aware of the risks associated with HPV infection. For information on where to get a free or low-cost Pap test, call the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER or talk to your physician.

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
Mayo Clinic
National Cancer Institute
National Cervical Cancer Coalition