It doesn't have the pink ribbons and 5K runs of October, but January is just as important: it is Cervical Health Awareness Month. More than 12,000 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2013, and 4,000 will die.
This statistic is especially tragic because cervical cancer is a preventable disease. Ninety-nine percent of cervical cancer is caused by a sexually transmitted virus, the human papilloma virus. HPV is a large family of viruses, with about 100 members. One particular branch of the HPV family, high-risk HPV, actually causes cancer -- cervical, vaginal, anal and even oral cancers.
HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact. It can infect anyone who has had any type of sexual or intimate encounter; it does not require exchange of bodily fluids. HPV can be contracted with one sexual encounter, remain dormant and only be detected years later.
Use of a condom, 100 percent of the time with 100 percent of sexual acts can decrease the odds of contracting HPV. But because HPV can infect areas that are not covered by condoms, condoms do not completely protect against HPV.
There is a vaccine available that if given before any type of sexual or intimate activity can protect against the two types of HPV that cause 90 percent of genital warts and the two types that cause 70 percent of cervical cancer. This vaccine, called Gardasil, is recommended for both girls and boys and the first dose ideally is given between 11-12 years of age. Just think about it: if every young girl and young boy in this country was vaccinated prior to ever having sex, we would eliminate 70 percent of cervical cancer in one generation!
The Gardasil vaccine is a series of 3 shots given over the course of 6 months. Even if you have already had sex, the vaccine can be given up to age 26 - again females and males. If someone has been sexually active already, there is a chance that exposure to one of the types of HPV covered by the vaccine may have already happened. If this is the case, the vaccine will not prevent problems caused by that strain, but odds are you haven't been exposed to all 4 strains so the vaccine can still provide great benefit.
So this January, let's pay some attention to what we can't see - the cervix - and remember to vaccinate early (girls and boys!), get your Pap smear regularly and have an HPV test when recommended by your doctor. Together we can eliminate cervical cancer.
- Kelly Shanahan, MD, FACOG, is a board-certified gynecologist who has been serving the women of Lake Tahoe and the Carson Valley for 19 years. She offers HPV vaccination, Pap smears, management of abnormal Pap smears and counseling to help you learn how best to decrease your risk of HPV and other STDs. Call 530-542-4961 or 775-782-7300 to schedule your appointment.