Happy New Year! January is a great time to get our health in-check and start new habits. It’s also Cervical Health Awareness Month, a reminder to schedule a checkup with your gynecologist to be sure you are up to date on your cervical cancer testing Health Awareness Month is a chance to raise awareness about how women can protect themselves from HPV (human papillomavirus) and cervical cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) each year approximately 12,000 women in the United States get cervical cancer and over 4,000 women die from the disease. As many as 93% of cervical cancers cases could be prevented through cervical cancer screening and HPV vaccination.
The main cause of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Most people with HPV do not even know they have it because they never have symptoms or problems. Usually the body’s immune system will fight off the infection, and it goes away on its own. But sometimes an HPV infection does not go away, and this can cause abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix. If that happens, treatment may be needed. If left untreated, these abnormal changes eventually can lead to cervical cancer.
The good news is that cervical cancer is almost always preventable with the Pap test (regular screening) and follow-up care, the HPV test, and the HPV vaccine. The Pap test is one of the most reliable and effective cancer screening tests available. It looks for precancerous cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated early. The Roche Cobas HPV test is a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved option to detect the human papillomavirus (HPV) in women 25 and older. This is a real-time PCR-based test from Roche Diagnostics with 16 primers that target a region on the L1 gene of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).
It is recommended that women begin getting regular PAP tests at age 21 and HPV vaccine before age 27. Parents should also make sure their pre-teens get the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12 and men should get the HPV vaccine under age 22. Women must also remember to continue to have regular exams throughout their lives. The HPV vaccine, which must be given in three doses, can protect women against four HPV types—the two most common high-risk strains (HPV 16 and 18) and the two most common low-risk types (HPV 6 and 11). The vaccine should be given before an infection occurs, ideally, before a girl becomes sexually active.
Certain factors may increase the risk of developing cancer following a high-risk HPV infection, including smoking, having a weakened immune system, having many children, using oral contraceptives over a long period of time, having poor oral hygiene and/or suffering from chronic inflammation. There’s no single, simple solution to ending cervical cancer but it’s clear it involves more than just quality health care. When it comes to sexual and reproductive health we should be comfortable in our own skin, and have the confidence to seek the care and support we need.