January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. More than 14,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer each year, and nearly 4,300 died from the disease in 2022 according to the National Cancer Institute. Hispanic women have the highest rates of developing cervical cancer, and Black women have the highest rates of dying from cervical cancer per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Since almost all cervical cancer cases are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, getting the HPV vaccine is an effective way to prevent the disease.
Vaccines are one of the greatest accomplishments of public health. They protect us from several life-threatening illnesses, like cervical cancer. HPV is so common in the United States that 80% of people will be infected at some point during their lifetime. The virus is often passed with no visible signs or symptoms at the time. It can be transmitted by having vaginal, oral, and or anal sex, so it is considered a sexually transmitted infection as trichomonas vaginalis (trichomoniasis), syphilis, gonorrhea, and others. To ensure you and your children are protected against HPV, it’s best to get vaccinated before being exposed to the virus. HPV infection has no treatment, so vaccination is our best prevention strategy. Here are some important facts about the HPV vaccine:
- The HPV vaccine is appropriate for people ages 9-26. Organizations like the American Cancer Society and the CDC recommend vaccinating adolescents as early as 9 years old. This is also when the immune system is strongest! Vaccination before age 15 only requires 2 doses of the vaccine. You can still be vaccinated after turning 15, but you will need a third dose. Adults aged 27 through 45 years should consult their doctors to know if the vaccine is appropriate for them.
- The HPV vaccine is for boys and girls. The HPV vaccine is sometimes thought to be only for girls to prevent cervical cancer. While it’s true the HPV vaccine prevents 90% of cervical cancers, it also helps prevent five other cancers that do not have routine screening available, including throat, anal, vulvar, penile, and vaginal.
Start the HPV vaccination series today and help protect yourself or your child against cancer. You can learn more about where to get the HPV vaccine and other recommended vaccines for children and adults by visiting the Pennsylvania Department of Health website: https://www.health.pa.gov/topics/programs/immunizations/Pages/Immunizations.aspx. Remember, HPV vaccination is cancer prevention!
Equally important, women should be screened for cervical cancer. Cervical cancer screening is an important part of routine health care, and can help find precancerous cervical cell changes, when treatment is available to prevent cervical cancer from developing. Currently, there are 3 ways to screen for cervical cancer. How often you should be screened for cervical cancer and which tests you should get will depend on your age and health history. Ask your primary care provider which screening tool is best for you. If you don’t have a primary care provider you see regularly, you can find a clinic near you that offers cervical cancer screening by contacting the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP) on this website: https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/nbccedp/screenings.htm. This program provides low-income, uninsured, and underserved people access to timely cervical cancer screening and diagnostic services.
Remember, HPV vaccination and cervical cancer screening save lives!