HPV Vaccination May be Your Best Shot

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. Do you know how to lower your risk of cervical cancer?

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

To ring in Cervical Health Awareness Month, let's start with a rather startling statistic: Did you know cervical cancer ranks as the third most common cancer in women worldwide?

The number of women suffering with cervical cancer is markedly lower in the United States, thanks to Pap tests, but new studies reveal this figure could be even lower if more women were vaccinated and tested for – and more willing to talk about – human papillomavirus (HPV), which most often prefigures the disease. HPV is the third most common sexually transmitted disease among teenage girls in the US. Persistent infections of certain HPV strains can cause cervical cancer.

In a recent study from the University of Maryland, researchers found that few eligible young women between 12 and 26 years old chose to take the HPV vaccine, and, of those who did, relatively few took the recommended three doses, substantially increasing their risk of cervical cancer. Less than 31 percent of the women enrolled in the study completed all three recommended doses of the HPV vaccine.

While the cancer preventive benefits of HPV vaccination have been proven many times, some mothers remain hesitant to talk about HPV vaccination with their daughters, according to a study from Ohio State University. The study, which followed 182 mother-daughter pairs, found that 137 of the duos discussed the HPC vaccine, while 45 did not broach the topic.

The study also found that mothers who talk to their daughters about the preventive measure were shown to play a significant role in their daughter's decision to get vaccinated.

Janice Krieger, assistant professor of communication at OSU, said the likelihood of discussing this potentially uncomfortable topic depends on the mother's willingness and her beliefs surrounding the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

African-Americans and Hispanics remain among the highest risk groups of women for developing cervical cancer because of gaps and disparities in health insurance coverage.

To combat these figures, organizers have launched Cervical Cancer-Free America (CCFA), an initiative aimed at raising awareness and increasing screenings and administered HPV vaccinations each year – all in an effort to halt cervical cancer.

Even when fully vaccinated against HPV, however, it's still important to get screened for cervical cancer through routine Pap smears. The cancer's development is usually very slow, which means a precancerous condition known as dysplasia can be caught -- and treated -- before it transforms.

Women with multiple sex partners, weakened immune systems or who are from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds are at highest risk of developing cervical cancer. Symptoms to look out for include fatigue, weight loss, heavy bleeding from the vagina, a single swollen leg, back pain and bone fractures.

Review Date: 
January 5, 2011