A virus called the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) causes cervical cancer. It affects approximately 20 million people in the United States at some time in their lives – but they may never know it. This virus lives in the skin of the genital organs in both men and women. Sometimes it causes genital warts that are visible on the skin, but many show no symptoms. By age 50, over 80% of women will have been infected at least once in their lives. A new vaccine has been developed that prevents infection with some of the more serious strains of this virus.
There are over 100 strains of HPV. About 30 strains are known to be spread through having sex with someone who is already infected. Some of these strains are harmless. Others cause cervical cancer. Scientists have developed a vaccine against the two most common “carcinogenic” strains, which account for over 70% of cervical cancers. The vaccine is most effective when it is given before a woman has had any exposure to HPV. For this reason, pre-teens and teens are the ideal candidates to receive this vaccine.
Many people simply recover from repeated HPV infections. Their immune systems are strong enough to clear the infections. Others remain infected over their lifetime. Those women with persistent infections of the cancer-causing strains will develop changes in the cells of the cervix. These changes can be identified through the use of the PAP test. This screening test for cervical cancer has prevented thousands of deaths from cervical cancer in the past, and is still an incredibly important tool for all women who are sexually active.
The combination of vaccination for girls and young women, and regular PAP screening for all sexually active women (including those who have been vaccinated) may make deaths from cervical cancer a thing of the past!