Op-Ed: Preventing Cervical Cancer

Op-Ed: Preventing Cervical Cancer

How HPV vaccination decreases cervical cancer risk.

Chicago Health is committed to publishing a diversity of opinions. The opinions expressed in this op-ed article are the author’s own.

Studies predict it may be possible to eliminate cervical cancer by 2120, primarily by implementing health strategies focused on high rates of human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination for children and screenings for women. However, there’s still a long way to go.

In 2022, the American Cancer Society estimated there were more than 14,000 new cases of invasive cervical cancer diagnosed in the United States. Additionally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than nine out of every 10 cervical cancer cases were caused by HPV. This connection is extremely serious for women who fear for their ability to have children — or worse, die — when diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Fortunately, there have been major advances in understanding how cervical cancer develops and how to prevent it with HPV vaccinations. Not only has vaccination proven to be an effective tool, in recent years, it has made cervical cancer one of the most preventable cancers.

What Is HPV?

HPV is a common virus that can pass from one person to another during sex and is extremely common in the U.S. According to the CDC, nearly all sexually active people will get HPV in their lives. However, in most cases, the virus does not lead to cancer.

Sexually transmitted HPV types are categorized in two groups: low-risk and high-risk. Low-risk HPV types generally cause warts, while high-risk HPV varieties typically don’t have symptoms and are more likely to cause cancer. For women, low-risk HPV infections typically go away on their own within two years. However, high-risk HPV infections last longer and can cause cancer in parts of the body where HPV infects cells, including the cervix.

The importance of HPV vaccination and when to get vaccinated

Given the prevalence of HPV and its connection to cancer, one of the best ways to lower risk is to be vaccinated. The CDC estimates HPV vaccination prevents more than 90% of cancers caused by HPV, including cervical, anal, vaginal, and vulvar precancers (abnormal cells that can lead to cancer).

For parents, the CDC recommends routine HPV vaccination for all children aged 11 to 12 years, which can be given starting at nine years old. The HPV vaccine can protect boys as well, preventing HPV-associated head-and-neck and anorectal cancers. It will also keep them from passing the HPV virus onto their partners when they eventually become sexually active. Those not vaccinated at that time can receive the vaccine through age 26. The oldest age of potential benefit is 45, but after age 26, people should discuss the benefit on an individual basis with their physician.

Other Protection Methods

Other prevention techniques against cervical cancer include regular screenings with the Papanicolaou (pap) test and the HPV test. The pap test can discover changes in a woman’s cervix before cancer develops and make it possible to find cervical cancer early, improving the prognosis. Additionally, the HPV test screens for infections caused by high-risk HPVs, which are more likely to cause cervical cancer. These tests can be used alone or simultaneously.

We cannot underestimate the effectiveness of HPV vaccination to prevent cancer. Parents and women need to act now to reduce their risk, especially during January — Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. By receiving the HPV vaccine and regular screenings, it’s possible to protect their own or their child’s health. And, with the breadth of treatments available today, women diagnosed with cervical cancer are better equipped than ever to overcome the disease.

Above photo courtesy of Heather Hazzan