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The Basics of Cervical Cancer

Cervical Cancer Diagnosis and Prevention

Women of all ages are at risk of cervical cancer, but half of those diagnosed are between ages 35 and 55, with the average age of diagnosis of 47 years. Regardless, it is important that even postmenopausal women continue having regular Pap tests if they still have a cervix. Even if a woman's cervix was removed during a hysterectomy (as 90 percent are), if she had a suspicious Pap before her surgery, she should continue Pap tests.

The benefits of the Pap test are clear: The overall death rate in the United States from the disease has declined by 74 percent since the introduction of the Pap test in the 1950s.

Although both the incidence and death rates of cervical cancer are going down, it is still the 12th most common cancer in women, which may be related to the epidemic of infection with HPV. According to the CDC, approximately 20 million people are currently infected with HPV. As many as 75 percent of the reproductive-age population has been infected with one or more types of HPV, and up to 5.5 million new infections occur each year.

There are more than 100 different strains of HPV, and approximately 15 types have been linked to cancer of the cervix. While most women who develop cervical cancer have HPV, not all women with the virus will develop cervical cancer. In fact, only a small proportion of women infected with HPV develop cervical cancer. Some types of HPV cause vaginal and vulvar warts; other strains cause the warts that sometimes develop on the hands or feet.

New Vaccine Offers Protection Against HPV

Now there is something women can use to protect themselves against human papillomavirus (HPV)/cervical cancer in addition to regular Pap tests and safe sex: An HPV vaccine. The FDA recently approved the vaccine — called Gardasil — for women ages 13 to 26 after clinical trials showed the vaccine is safe and 100 percent effective in preventing HPV strains 16 and 18, which cause 70 percent of cervical cancers. Gardasil, given in three injections over six months, is also 99 percent effective in preventing HPV strains 6 and 11, which cause about 90 percent of genital wart cases. Although Gardasil prevents the bulk of HPV strains, it doesn't protect against all of them, so the FDA recommends it as a complement to Pap tests. Furthermore, the vaccine does not work if a woman is already infected with one of these HPV types. It has to be given before infection.

Last medical review: 6/06

Last date updated: 1/07

Copyright 2007 National Women's Health Resource Center Inc. (NWHRC)