Early Vaccination Key to Cervical Cancer Prevention

Friday, January 18, 2013 - 1:32pm
Assistant Professor of Gynecologic Oncology, RPCI

Most cervical cancers are diagnosed around midlife, but preventative measures against this disease can, and should, start much younger. Let me explain why.

Research has helped us understand that around 99%, so nearly all, of cervical cancers are caused by an ongoing infection with human papillomavirus, or HPV. Around 50% of all sexually active men and women are infected with HPV, but most don’t even know they are infected and are passing it on to others. This is because it often causes no symptoms and can clear on its own over time.  

The good news is that we now have HPV vaccines, which prevent infection with the strains of HPV that most commonly cause cervical cancer. These two “anti-cancer” vaccines are Gardasil® and Cervarix®, and both are approved for males and females ages 9 – 26.

Why so young? In order for the vaccine to work, a person must have it before he/she is infected with HPV. Therefore, because HPV is a sexually transmitted infection, the best time to get vaccinated is before engaging in any sort of sexual activity. I’ll add that any kind of sexual activity can transmit the disease, so intercourse is not necessary. Skin-to-skin contact is all it takes.

Parents, this may be hard to swallow, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) nearly 50% of all high school students in the U.S. are sexually active by the time they graduate. This is a big part of why the recommended age range for vaccination starts as young as 9 and cuts off around 26, around the time that most have already been sexually active.

Furthermore, males obviously can’t get cervical cancer, but it’s still important for them to receive the vaccine. For one thing, by being immune to the infection, they are not able to spread it to others. Secondly, other forms of cancer, including certain head and neck cancers, and other diseases such as genital warts have been linked to HPV as well.

The main takeaway is that it’s not too early to think about having your child vaccinated with the HPV vaccine. With widespread use of these vaccines we could cut cervical cancer occurrence by 70%. That’s worth repeating: We could cut cervical cancer occurrence by 70%. That’s nearly 9,000 women saved from developing cervical cancer each year.

I will add that while I’m focusing on prevention, early detection of cervical cancer with regular screening exams, such as the Pap test, is extremely important and should be part of any female’s routine health regimen, regardless of whether vaccination is received. Learn more about cervical cancer screening.

Remember, the HPV virus does not discriminate – it doesn’t care how old or young you are, or if your daughter or son has had sex for the first time. It’s equally impartial to whether it infects the cervix, anus, mouth, or tonsils in an adult or a child. Prevention is the name of the game.

Review the quick facts below and visit the links provided for more information about HPV.

Quick facts about HPV & the HPV vaccine:

  • HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection.
  • Half of the people who are sexually active pick up an HPV infection in their lifetime.
  • About 20 million Americans have an HPV infection, and 6 million people become newly infected every year.
  • There are approximately 150 types or strains of HPV, 40 of which transmit through sexual activity.  The two types associated with cancer, types 16 and 18, may persist for years and eventually turn in to cancer.
  • HPV can present itself in other areas of the body including the cervix, vagina, vulva, anus, mouth and pharynx.
  • Having HPV is not a guarantee that you’ll develop cancer. It does, however, greatly increase your risk.
  • Cervarix® protects against 2 types of HPV: 16 & 18.
  • Gardasil® protects against 4 types of HPV: 6, 11, 16 & 18. HPV 6 & 11 cause 90% of all genital warts.
  • Both vaccines are approved for males and females ages 9 – 26 and are administered in a 3-dose series, which is important to complete in order for the vaccine to be effective.

Additional Information:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: HPV Vaccine – Questions & Answers

Other RPCI Cancer Talk posts on cervical cancer: 
Understanding the New Recommendations for Cervical Cancer Screening
Cervical Cancer and HPV

Roswellness Radio: Cervical Cancer