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Seattle Women Missing Cervical Cancer Protection Opportunities

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

According to a survey released by the National Women's Health Resource Center (NWHRC), a non-profit organization dedicated to health education, many Seattle women lack an understanding about cervical cancer and are not accessing the tools to prevent it. The survey shows that while 79 percent of Seattle women surveyed have seen or read about the human papillomavirus (HPV), only half (53 percent) believe cervical cancer can be prevented—despite the availability of HPV-based prevention tools.

The survey explored women's awareness of HPV, which causes cervical cancer, and the tools to prevent the disease, including the Pap test, the HPV test and the HPV vaccine. A Pap test detects abnormal cells caused by HPV that can lead to cervical cancer, while the HPV test checks for high-risk strains of the virus itself—identifying women most at risk for developing cervical cancer. The HPV vaccine protects against the two 'high-risk' types of HPV that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers. Key findings include:

* Despite being aware of the tools available to prevent cervical cancer, relatively few identified the correct age a women should receive a Pap test (20 percent) and the HPV test (7 percent).

* While more than half (64 percent) of the women surveyed have seen or read about the HPV test, only 13 percent of women reported getting the HPV test. The HPV test is recommended along with a Pap test for women 30 and older, because HPV infections are more likely to be persistent at this age, and therefore more likely to cause the cell changes that cause cervical cancer. The test may also be used in women under 30 as a follow-up to an inconclusive Pap test.

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* Many falsely believed that the Pap test looks for conditions such as sexually transmitted diseases (49 percent), ovarian cancer (46 percent) and yeast infections (26 percent).

* Although most (83 percent) think that annual healthcare exams are "very important" or "important," more than half (52 percent) of those surveyed had not had a gynecologic/pelvic exam in the past year.

"These survey results seem to indicate that Seattle women may not be getting the regular gynecologic care they need to protect themselves from cervical cancer, which is virtually preventable with the Pap test, HPV test and HPV vaccine," says Elizabeth Battaglino Cahill, R.N., executive director of NWHRC. "We believe more work is needed to educate women in the Seattle area about cervical cancer prevention so that they will be proactive about their health and speak to their healthcare professional about which cervical cancer prevention tools are best for them." NWHRC is conducting cervical cancer awareness surveys in several U.S. cities.

What Seattle Women Need to Know: Getting the Facts Straight About Cervical Cancer Prevention

Cervical cancer is the second most common type of cancer that strikes women today. In the United States, cervical cancer affected more than 11,000 women in 2008 and killed nearly 4,000. Cervical cancer has a single known cause—HPV—which infects approximately 80 percent of all women at some point in their lifetimes. In the majority of women, the virus goes away or is suppressed by the body before it causes any problems. Routine HPV testing has been FDA-approved for use with a Pap test in women age 30 and older. Together, Pap and HPV tests help make sure abnormal cells are detected early. Additionally, an HPV vaccine has been FDA-approved for girls and young women ages 9-26, which is the age group that was studied in clinical trials. While the vaccine offers protection against 70 percent of cervical cancers, it does not provide complete protection against all strains of high-risk HPV. Women who are vaccinated should still get screened as appropriate.

"We now have the incredible opportunity to stop cervical cancer," says Dr. Karen Ilika in Kirkland, Wash. "With tools such as the Pap test, HPV test and HPV vaccine, there is no reason why any woman should die from cervical cancer today." Dr. Ilika provides comprehensive care for all the stages of a woman's life—from the first gynecology exam through menopause and beyond. The medical practice offers a combination of cervical cancer prevention tools, including Pap testing, HPV screening, colposcopy and HPV vaccination—depending on a woman's age and medical needs.