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The HPV Vaccines and Cervical Screening

With the introduction of the first HPV vaccine--the first vaccine ever specifically to prevent a specific cancer--the dream of eliminating cervical cancer deaths is increasingly within reach. Cervical cancer is the only type of cancer for which there is one, specific cause: "high-risk" strains of human papilloma virus, or HPV. HPV is a very common, sexually transmitted virus that normally doesn't cause any known health problems. But in some women, the infection stays active long enough to cause abnormal cells to form, which can then develop into cervical cancer. With the HPV test, we can identify which women are at risk and need to be watched. And now, the vaccine allows many HPV infections to be prevented in the first place.

What women need to know, however, is that even with the HPV vaccine, women will still need a regular Pap smear and, for women over 30, the HPV test along with it. That's because:

  • The vaccines will not be able to protect everyone. To be fully effective, current research suggests that a vaccine should be given before women become sexually active. In other words, the ideal time to get the vaccine is during adolescence. That means that for the vast majority of women today, and for many in the future, regular screening is their first and primary weapon against this disease.
  • The protection offered by the vaccines is incomplete. There are roughly 13 types of the HPV virus that can cause cervical cancer. The HPV vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, are designed to target two high risk types of the virus that are responsible for 70 percent of all cervical cancers. However, that means they cannot fully protect women against the remaining 30 percent of cervical cancers that are caused by other "high-risk" types of HPV.
  • There are a lot of unknowns. For example, it is not known whether a "booster" vaccine shot will be needed later in life to ensure continued protection. It is also not known whether vaccinating males should be recommended.

Thus, both vaccination and screening are essential tools in the fight against cervical cancer, with the best routine for each woman depending on her age and history. You should discuss your particular situation with your healthcare provider.

For more information on HPV and cervical cancer, click here

For more information on the HPV Test, click here.

Created: 7/28/2006  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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