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On the Horizon for Public Health: Vaccines can prevent cervical cancer

HPV, which causes cervical cancer, infects 14 million more people each year.

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Marcia Schroeder

January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month and so it is a great time to talk about how HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine helps prevent cancer.

Cervical cancer was once the leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States. Now, thanks to pap smears and HPV vaccination, it is the most preventable of all female cancers. About 79 million people, most in their late teens and early 20s, are currently infected with HPV. An estimated additional 14 million people are infected with the virus each year. That is a compelling reason to protect preteens and teens early through vaccination.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that increasing HPV vaccination rates from current levels up to 80 percent would prevent an additional 53,000 future cervical cancer cases in the United States. CDC recommends HPV vaccination for 11 and 12 year-old girls and boys. The vaccine is also recommended for young women ages 13 through 26 and young men ages 13 through 21 who have not yet been vaccinated.

Almost all cervical cancer is caused by HPV. Some cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus and throat are also caused by HPV. Research is ongoing to understand how and to what extent HPV causes these other cancers. Those who are not fully vaccinated remain vulnerable to devastating cancers caused by HPV. HPV vaccine prevents new infections, but does not treat existing infections or diseases. This is why the HPV vaccine works best when given before any exposure to the virus.

Women should get screened regularly, starting at age 21, for cervical cancer, even if immunized with the HPV vaccine. There are two tests that help prevent cervical cancer or help in identifying it early. A Pap smear looks for cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately, and the HPV test looks for the virus that can cause these cell changes.

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Most of the time, HPV goes away by itself within two years, and does not cause health problems. It is thought that the immune system fights off HPV naturally. However when HPV stays in the body for many years it can cause cancer. It is not known why HPV goes away in most, but not all cases. Vaccination is a preventive layer that is available to all our young people.

The Minnesota Sage Program offers free or low-cost cervical cancer screening through CDC’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. You can find out more if you Google “Minnesota Sage Program” or call 888-643-2584. You can also contact your local healthcare provider to schedule an HPV vaccination appointment, if appropriate for you or a family member.

Marcia Schroeder is a registered nurse with Horizon Public Health, which serves five counties, including Douglas County. Contact Schroeder at marcias@horizonph.org.

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