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Are You Ready to Help Stop Cervical Cancer?

National patient advocacy organizations and allies are urging American women to start the year off right by learning more about cervical cancer and prevention during Cervical Health Awareness Month this January.  Here’s what you need to know.

Paul DeMiglio

Paul DeMiglio

Although enormous strides have been made in the prevention of cervical cancer – which has gone from being the number-one cause of cancer death among American women in the 1950s to now ranking 14th for all cancers impacting U.S. women – much work remains in the fight to end this disease. Cervical cancer is still a major health concern, with approximately 12,000 women diagnosed each year in the United States and more than 4,000 women who die from the disease annually.

Cervical cancer is primarily caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted virus in the U.S. impacting 79 million Americans. While HPV is most often the cause, other identified risk factors can include:

  • Smoking;
  • Having HIV or other conditions that weaken the immune system;
  • Prolonged (five or more years) use of birth control;
  • Three or more full-term pregnancies; and
  • Having several or more sexual partners.

While many of these factors don’t always lead to cervical cancer, it’s been shown that the risk of acquiring the disease can be decreased through frequent screening. Once women began regularly getting Pap tests and HPV vaccinations, for example, deaths resulting from cervical cancer decreased by nearly 70 percent in the United States from 1955-1992.

Cervical cancer is preventable because of the availability of a vaccine for HPV and effective screening tests, according to an announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of Cervical Cancer Awareness Month last year. Although highly treatable, the CDC shows that half of all cervical cancer cases occur in women who rarely or never were screened for cancer. In another 10-20 percent of cases, patients were screened but did not receive adequate follow-up care. The CDC has also issued information regarding the availability and importance of preventative HPV vaccines.

The National Cervical Cancer Coalition (NCCC) and the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) also advocate for increased awareness of the disease. In its promotion of the event the NCCC provides numerous suggestions on how to spread the word, including:

  • Enlist radio stations to issue PSAs;
  • Share tweets and Facebook posts to educate their networks;
  • Distribute ASHA/NCCC’s news release to local media, with a guide on how to reach out to media networks; and
  • Write to their mayors or local legislative offices to recognize Cervical Health Awareness Month.

It’s also important for providers to know how to most effectively engage families with girls, according to ASHA/NCCC President and CEO Lynn B. Barclay.

“Only about 35 percent of girls and young women who are eligible for these vaccines have completed the three-dose series,” Barclay says. “Parents are strongly influenced by the recommendations of the family doctor or nurse, so we’ll continue developing cervical cancer information and counseling tools designed specifically for health professionals.“

Now we want to hear from you. How can you increase awareness about cervical cancer in your communities? What can organizations, places of employment and other stakeholders do to help heighten visibility around cervical cancer prevention strategies?

Editorial Note: At press time, information regarding expected estimates of cervical cancer rates in the U.S. for 2014 had not been released. Please note that we will include the latest statistics as soon as data becomes available.

HPV Vaccine Reduces Infection Rates in Teen Girls

Since the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine was introduced in 2006, vaccine-type HPV prevalence has decreased by 56 percent among females 14-19 years old, according to a new study published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases.

Linda Barlow

Linda Barlow

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States. Although the vast majority of HPV infections do not cause serious harm, some will persist and can lead to cervical cancer. Each year in the U.S., about 19,000 cancers caused by HPV occur in women.

“Unfortunately, only one-third of girls aged 13-17 have been fully vaccinated with HPV vaccine,” says CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “Our low vaccination rates represent 50,000 preventable tragedies, which means 50,000 girls alive today will develop cervical cancer over their lifetime. This would be prevented if we reach 80 percent vaccination rates. For every year we delay in doing so, another 4,400 girls will develop cervical cancer in their lifetimes.”

Study author Markowitz notes that the decline in vaccine type prevalence could be due to factors such as “Herd” Immunity (also called “community immunity”), which occurs when most members of a community are protected against a contagious disease because a critical portion of the population has been immunized and the opportunities for an outbreak are reduced. “Herd” Immunity has been shown to control a variety of contagious diseases, including measles, mumps, rotavirus (MMR), influenza and pneumococcal disease.

Public health experts recommend routine HPV vaccination at ages 11-12 for both boys and girls. A series of three shots is recommended over six months. HPV vaccination is also recommended for older teens and young adults who were not vaccinated when younger.

The HPV vaccine is not without its critics, and health care providers are not consistently giving strong recommendations for the vaccine, particularly for younger teens, according to the CDC.

“One of the most common criticisms from parents – that their teen is not sexually active yet – misses the point,” suggests Frieden, who says that vaccines should be administered well before people are exposed to an infection.

Frieden also points out that, with the Vaccines for Children Program and the Affordable Care Act, vaccination is easy and cost should not be a barrier because many insurers are required to cover the vaccine at no cost to either female or male patients.

The power of an effective and widespread vaccination program should not be ignored. Smallpox, for example – a serious and sometimes fatal infectious disease – has no specific treatment and is only prevented by a vaccine. Although outbreaks of the disease have occurred from time to time over thousands of years, it is now eradicated worldwide because of a successful and comprehensive vaccination campaign.

A similar initiative is underway to eradicate polio worldwide. The development of effective vaccines to prevent paralytic polio was one of the major medical breakthroughs of the 20th century. Supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) has helped to reduce the incidence of polio by more than 99 percent.

As with smallpox, if enough people in a community are immunized, the virus will be deprived of susceptible hosts and will die out. But high levels of vaccination coverage must be maintained to stop transmission and prevent outbreaks.

Will HPV go the way of smallpox and polio thanks to “Herd” Immunity? Do you agree with the CDC that it’s time to ramp up efforts to protect the next generation with the HPV vaccine? Or do you share the critics’ concerns?