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Screenings can detect cervical cancer
Health Advice
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January is National Cervical Health Awareness Month. In 2007, there were 11,150 new cases of cervical cancer and 3,670 deaths from the disease.
These deaths usually occur among women who aren't screened regularly. In many developing countries, cervical cancer is the number one killer of women. Even in the United States, 11 percent of women still report they do not have regular screenings.
Promoters of National Cervical Health Awareness Month stress the importance of preventive screening for women. A Pap test and pelvic exam should be important parts of a woman's routine health care because they detect cancer or abnormalities that may lead to cancer of the cervix.
Women should have a Pap test at least once every three years, beginning around age 21 or about three years after beginning sexual intercourse (if before age 21). About 55 million Pap tests are performed each year in the United States. Of these, only about 3.5 million (six percent) are abnormal and require follow up. This does not necessarily mean, however, that cancer is present in each cases. It just means that further tests may be necessary. Cervical cancer is extremely rare in women under age 25.
Simple, quick and painless, a Pap test (or smear) can be done in a doctor's office or a clinic. The test is a way to examine cells collected from the lower, narrow end of the uterus or cervix. Most invasive cancers of the cervix can be prevented if women have regular Pap tests. Even if cancer is detected, cancer of the cervix is more likely to be treated successfully if it is detected early. The only way a woman can know what is happening to her body is through regular screenings.
The most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States, human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is the primary risk factor for cervical cancer. A group of more than 100 viruses, HPVs include types that cause common warts and some that are sexually transmitted and that cause wart-like growths. While these types do not lead to cancer, more than a dozen other sexually transmitted HPVs have been linked to cervical cancer. Although HPV infection is common, only a small percentage of women with untreated HPV develop cervical cancer.
HPV infection is more common in younger groups, particularly the late teens and 20s. The CDC maintains that more than half of all sexually active men and women become infected with HPV at some time. HPVs are spread mainly through sexual contact, with the following factors increasing the risk:
• Women who become sexually active young
• Women who have multiple partners, and
• Women whose sexual partners have other partners
Women who are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus are also at higher risk for being infected with HPVs and for developing cervical abnormalities.
Nonsexual transmission of HPVs is rare. Evidence of the virus often disappears but sometimes remains detectable for years after infection.
Last year, a new vaccine, Gardasil, was released to prevent cervical cancer, pre-cancerous genital lesions and genital warts due to HPV.
The vaccine is recommended for girls 11 and 12 years old, or before onset of sexual activity. Gardasil can be given to girls as young as 9. The vaccine is also advised for those 13 to 26 years old. Experts say the vaccine could cut worldwide deaths from cervical cancer by two-thirds.
In response to opponents who believe the delivery of this vaccine will encourage promiscuity, researchers say: "There's no data to support that vaccination changes behavior." It will, however, stop needless deaths. Another HPV vaccine is in the final stages of clinical testing. This will protect against two other types of HPV that cause cervical cancers.

Ratcliffe works with the Coastal Health District. You can call her at 876-2173, ext. 236.

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