Protecting women from HPV
Recent media attention on human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines has brought light to a group of women who are being left out, those older than age 26. The HPV vaccine is FDA-approved only through age 26, with the thinking that by that age, women (and men) have probably already been exposed to the virus and won’t benefit.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States and the main cause of cervical cancer in women. There are more than 40 strains that can infect the genitals in men and women.
The CDC reports that anyone who is having (or has ever had) sex can get HPV. HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives. This is true even for people who only have sex with one person in their lifetime.
HPV vaccines such as Gardasil and Cervarix are most effective if they are provided before an individual ever has sex. So what do women do that are older than 26 to protect themselves against HPV?
According to Dr. Felicia Lane, an obstetrics and gynecology physician on staff at Advocate South Suburban Hospital and Advocate Medical Group, the best way for women older than 26 to protect themselves is to have a regular pap test (pap smear).
“It is important for any woman, HPV vaccination or not, to continue to have regular pap tests,” says Dr. Lane. “A pap test is an early warning system for cervical cancer and other potentially dangerous issues for women.”
The Office on Women’s Health of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that a pap test can save your life. It can find the earliest signs of cervical cancer. If caught early, the chance of curing cervical cancer is very high. Pap tests also can find infections and abnormal cervical cells that can turn into cancer cells.
According to the CDC, cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States. However, in the past 40 years, the number of cases of cervical cancer and the number of deaths from cervical cancer have decreased significantly. This decline largely is the result of many women getting regular pap tests.
“Most women never know they have HPV. It usually stays hidden and doesn’t have symptoms. It sometimes even goes away on its own,” says Dr. Lane. “However, when HPV doesn’t go away on its own, it can cause changes in the cells of the cervix that can indicate cervical cancer risk.”
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