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Questions about HPV and cervical cancer answered

By Rebecca Sunshine
Special to The SUN

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, and the new year is a perfect time for women to take charge of their health with important preventive screenings such as pap and HPV tests, which detect irregularities that can lead to cervical cancer.

HPV and cervical cancer are often overlooked or misunderstood. So, as you think about coverage around Cervical Health Awareness Month in January, we want to provide you with some handy facts about cervical health and urge you to use these to educate your audience. Planned Parenthood’s website has more information on how to protect oneself from cervical cancer and infections like HPV.

If you need additional information, Planned Parenthood has medical experts available that can answer your questions. Please feel free to get in touch at (303) 813.7668 or email at Rebecca.Sunshine@pprm.org.

What exactly is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is caused by certain types of HPV, or human papillomavirus, a very common sexually transmitted infection. Most HPV infections are harmless, do not require treatment, and go away by themselves — but if left untreated, high-risk HPV may lead to cervical cancer in some women.

How common is HPV?

Genital HPV infections are very common. In fact, HPV is so common that most sexually active people should expect to be exposed to it and, if not vaccinated, infected by HPV at some point in their lives. Most people who have or have had HPV don’t know it. About 79 million Americans are currently infected, according to the CDC.

How exactly does HPV turn into cervical cancer?

In most cases, the body’s immune system clears HPV naturally. But if it doesn’t, when left untreated, abnormal cells caused by HPV can develop into cervical cancer. Cervical cancer takes years to develop. It can be prevented if changes in the cervix are found early and treated.

So what can I do to protect myself from HPV?

Get the HPV vaccine. Talk to your doctor or health care professional to learn more about getting vaccinated.

Use protection if you have sex. Condoms can lower the risk of passing HPV if used correctly every time you have sex. But HPV can infect areas that are not covered by a condom — so they may not fully protect against HPV.

Talk with your sexual partners. You can be exposed to HPV by having skin-to-skin contact just once with someone who has the virus, so it’s important to talk with your partner about the importance of being protected and safe.

Get regular pap tests. A pap test can find abnormal cells (that are caused by HPV) in the cervix before the cells become cancer. Women aged 21-29 should have routine pap tests every three years and women aged 30-64 should have a pap test every three years or a pap and HPV test every five years.

Is the HPV vaccine unsafe?

No. The HPV vaccine is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of HPV, is safe, and is supported by leading medical organizations. The FDA has approved this vaccine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended it for girls and boys aged 11-12. The American Cancer Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics support ensuring all young people get the vaccine.

Who should get the HPV vaccine?

Medical guidance recommends that both girls and boys get the vaccination when they are 11 to 12 years old because the vaccine works best when people receive it years before they start having sex. But even those who have had sex can benefit from the vaccine; it is available to anyone aged 9-26.

What about older women?

For women over the age of 26, the best way to prevent cervical cancer is to get routine cervical cancer screenings, as recommended. Still, some people may be candidates to receive the vaccine and should talk to their health care provider for more information.

What about pregnant women?

Pregnant women are not included in the recommendations for HPV vaccines. Studies show neither FDA-approved HPV vaccine (Gardasil and Cervarix) caused problems for babies born to women who were vaccinated while they were pregnant. But, to be on the safe side until even more is known, a pregnant woman should not get any doses of either HPV vaccine.

Does the HPV vaccine promote sex?

No. Research shows that the HPV vaccine keeps young people healthy and safe, and it can give parents an opportunity to talk with their kids about sex and sexual health. Despite the myths, young people who get the HPV vaccine are no more likely to have sex than those who don’t.

Is there a cure for HPV?

Most HPV infections are harmless, do not require treatment, and go away by themselves. However, treatment for the abnormal cell changes in the cervix caused by HPV is available at some Planned Parenthood health centers. Treatment is also available for cervical cancer, which, when caught early, has a nearly 100-percent five-year survival rate.

What about the Affordable Care Act?

Under the new health care law, people who already have insurance will gain access to pap tests, HPV vaccines and other no-cost preventive services, will no longer be discriminated against for having a “preexisting condition,” and young people can remain on their parent’s insurance until age 26. Those who are uninsured can enroll in new, more affordable health care plans right now.

This story was posted on January 9, 2014.