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Understanding Cervical Cancer Through Prevention and Awareness 

January marks Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, a crucial time to delve into the latest scientific insights surrounding this disease

January 09, 2024 - Courtney Vottikonda, MPH

January ushers in a new year, full of self-reflection, healthy resolutions, and new beginnings. January also marks Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, a crucial time to delve into the latest scientific insights surrounding this disease and understand the importance of identifying risks and staying protected. 

The Role of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and Cervical Cancer

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States.1 Currenly, it is estimated that more than 42 million Americans are infected with strains of HPV that will cause disease, and around 13 million Americans become infected each year.2 Although most HPV infections will go away on their own,2 high-risk strains (HPV 16/18) remain a public health concern. Untreated infections with HPV strains account for 90% of all cervical cancers, with the majority of cases stemming from persistent, untreated infections with these high-risk HPV types.3

Female Patient with Doctor

Cervical cancer develops in the cells of the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. While , not all HPV infections lead to cervical cancer, regular screening is vital for early detection and intervention. making regular screening vital for early detection and intervention.4 The World Health Organization (WHO) has set a global call to action, with a clear and simple message: get informed, get screened, and get vaccinated.5  

Get Informed

Staying informed on the most up-to-date scientific information regarding HPV and cervical cancer prevention is the most powerful tool for advocacy. Consider the information below when making informed decisions regarding you or a loved one’s health care:  

  • Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women globally, with 604,000 new confirmed cases and 342,000 deaths estimated for 20204 
  •  Cervical cancer incidence and mortality rates are higher in low- and middle-income countries, often due to limited access to HPV vaccinations and cervical screenings4 
  • Women living with HIV are 6 times more likely to develop cervical cancer compared with women without HIV4 
  • The WHO recommends HPV vaccinations for all female children aged 9 to 14 years before becoming sexually active4 
  • Women should be screened for cervical cancer every 5 to 10 years, starting at age 30 years; women who are HIV-positive should be screened every 3 years, starting at age 25 years4 

Get Screened

The goal of screening for cervical cancers is to identify precancerous cervical cell changes at an early stage, to prevent the development of cancer. Regular screening, such as with Pap smears and HPV tests, plays a pivotal role in detecting precancerous changes or early-stage cervical cancer.6  

Currently, there are 3 main screening measures for cervical cancer6 

  • HPV test, which checks for high-risk HPV strains that cause cervical cancer  
  • A Pap smear (also known as a Pap Test or cervical cytology), which collects cervical cells so they can be checked for changes caused by HPV 
  • The HPV/Pap co-test, which uses an HPV test and Pap test together to check for both high-risk HPV and cervical cell changes 

Get Vaccinated

HPV vaccination has emerged as a powerful preventive measure against cervical cancer. Research has demonstrated that HPV vaccines are safe and effective in reducing HPV-related infections and provide clinically effective protection, with sustained antibody titers demonstrated for at least 10 years post vaccination.

Vaccinated Women

Studies indicate that vaccine uptake has played a significant role in decreasing the number of HPV infections and reducing the risk of invasive cervical cancer at the population level7; however, gaps still exist, including increasing HPV vaccine uptake in adolescents, improving HCP knowledge gaps on patient education towards HPV and cervical cancer, and addressing overall vaccine knowledge gaps in minority and underserved communities.8 

Cervical Cancer Awareness Month serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of education, prevention, and early detection. Through continued research, vaccination efforts, accessible screening programs, and advocacy, we can strive toward a future in which cervical cancer is no longer a pervasive global threat to womens health. With accessible screenings, widespread vaccination, and continuous education, we not only empower individuals but also aim for a future where cervical cancer becomes a preventable affliction of the past. 

References 

    1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital HPV infection – basic fact sheet. Accessed December 2, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm
    2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HPV infection. Accessed December 2, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/hpv/parents/about-hpv.html
    3. Scarinci I, Hasen B, Kim Y-I. HPV vaccine uptake among daughters of Latinx immigrant mothers: findings from a cluster randomized controlled trial of a community-based, culturally relevant intervention. Vaccine. 2020;38(25):4125-4134. doi:10.1016/j.vaccine.2020.03.052
    4. World Health Organization. Cervical cancer. Accessed December 3, 2023. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/cervical-cancer
    5. World Health Organization. Get informed-get screened-get vaccinated. Accessed December 20, 2023. https://www.who.int/multi-media/details/get-informed—get-screened—get-vaccinated
    6. National Cancer Institute. Cervical cancer s Accessed December 5, 2023. https://www.cancer.gov/types/cervical/screening
    7. Shapiro GK. HPV vaccination: an underused strategy for the prevention of cancer. Curr Oncol. 2022;29(5):3780-3792. doi:3390/curroncol29050303
    8. Leung SOA, Akinwumi B, Elias KM, Feldman S. Educating healthcare providers to increase human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination rates: a qualitative systematic r Vaccine: X. 2019;3:100037. doi:10.1016/j.jvacx.2019.100037