Cervical Cancer Facts

Prevention | Pap Test | Before You Have Symptoms | Cervical Cancer Vaccine

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What Are Cervical Cancer Vaccines?

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Cervical cancer vaccines (also called Human Papillomavirus or HPV vaccines) protect against the virus that causes almost all cervical cancers.

Cervical cancer affects about 11,000 women each year in the United States. Worldwide, cervical cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in women. Cervical cancer vaccines can save lives, and prevent the fear and the costs related to cervical cancer and abnormal Pap tests.

What’s HPV and How Do You Get It?

HPV is a family of very common viruses that cause almost all cervical cancers, plus a variety of other problems like common warts, genital warts and plantar warts. HPV also is part of the cause of cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus, and cancers of the head and neck. Women and men become infected with HPV types that cause cervical cancer through sexual intercourse and sexual contact. Most women will be exposed to HPV during their lifetime.

How Can I Protect Myself Against Cervical Cancer?

Regular Pap screening beginning at age 21 can detect problems of the cervix that are related to HPV infection before cancer develops. And now vaccines can provide protection against the HPV virus types that cause 70% of cervical cancer.

If you never get exposed to HPV, you’ll be at extremely low risk for cervical cancer. But, the only sure protection from HPV is lifelong abstinence. Regular condom use can also help prevent spread of HPV infection.

Who Should Get Vaccinated Against Cervical Cancer?

Guidelines are summarized below:

  • Routine vaccination is recommended for all 11 and 12 year old girls.
  • The vaccination series can be started for girls as early as age 9. Ideally, the vaccine should be given before first sexual contact, but females up to age 26 who are sexually active should still be vaccinated.
  • Vaccination is recommended for girls and women ages 13 to 26 who have not been previously vaccinated. However, a decision about whether to vaccinate a woman aged 19 to 26 should be made based on an informed discussion between the woman and her healthcare provider regarding her risk of previous HPV exposure and potential benefit from vaccination.
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Why Are the Cervical Cancer Vaccines Recommended for Such Young Girls?

Ideally, females should get vaccinated before they become sexually active. This is because the vaccines are most effective in girls/women who have not yet been exposed to the types of HPV covered by the vaccines. Girls/women who have not been exposed or infected with these types get the full benefit of the vaccine.

Will Sexually Active Females Benefit from the Vaccines?

Females who are sexually active may also benefit from the vaccines. But they may get less benefit from vaccination since they may already have been exposed or infected with one or more of the HPV types covered by the vaccines.

Why Should I Get Vaccinated? Why Should my Daughter Get Vaccinated?

Consider that cervical cancer most often affects women during their reproductive years. This cancer robs some women of the ability to bear children and threatens the lives of young mothers.

You may not know anyone who has had cervical cancer. But almost every adult woman knows someone who has had to see a provider more often or has been treated for Pap test abnormalities. That is because HPV infection is so common. It is a relief that a Pap test can help find early cervical changes when they are treatable.

Now, women have an important additional option for protection. Cervical cancer vaccines takes prevention a giant leap forward by blocking the first step along the pathway to cervical cancer, HPV infection. Vaccination plus regular Pap tests provide the best protection against developing cervical cancer.

How Are the Vaccines Given?

The vaccines are given in the arm or thigh 3 times—at the first visit, 1-2 months later and 6 months after the first injection. The best protection is achieved after all 3 shots are given. It is important to try to to get all the shots on the recommended time schedule, but if there are delays, complete it as soon as possible. If there are big delays, you do not need to restart the three dose series. It is not known at this time whether booster shots will be needed later.

Are the Vaccines Safe?

Yes, the studies show that the vaccines are extremely safe. There are no live viruses in the vaccines. The most common side effects are redness and soreness where the shot was given. Headaches (like when you have a cold or fever) are also common. Fever can also occur. Over-the-counter pain and fever medications will help if you have symptoms.

As with any new medication, safety issues will continue to be monitored by public health and regulatory authorities.

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Are There Girls and Women Who Should Not Get Vaccinated?

You should not be vaccinated if you are acutely ill, if you have a history of allergy to yeast, or if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant. Risks to an unborn baby are thought to be low, but as with any new medication, there may be unknown risks and the study of this question is on-going.

You should get vaccinated if you are in the recommended age group even if you are being treated for an abnormal Pap test or if you’ve had an abnormal Pap test, genital warts or an HPV infection in the past.

Does Insurance Cover the Cost?

While some insurance companies may cover the vaccine, others may not. Most large insurance plans usually cover the costs of recommended vaccines. You need to check with your insurance company. If your insurer has covered other routine childhood vaccinations, the cervical cancer vaccines will likely be covered for girls and women in the recommended age group through public health systems.

Does the Government Pay for the Vaccines?

Federal health programs such as Vaccines for Children (VFC) cover the vaccines for certain ages. The VCF program provides free vaccines to children and teens under 19 years of age who are either uninsured, Medicaid-eligible, American Indian, or Alaska Native. HPV vaccination is on the list for coverage under VFC.

What about Vaccination for Boys and Men?

As of October 2009, the quadrivalent was approved for use in boys and young men ages 9 - 26 years of age. Talk to your provider regarding HPV vaccines for males.

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Please remember that the cervical cancer vaccines do not protect against other sexually transmitted infections. You must still make thoughtful and careful choices about sexual activity.

Remember also that vaccinated women still require regular Pap tests if they have been sexually active. Ask your healthcare provider about the screening schedule that is best for you.

HPV Fact Check:

  • HPV infection is common in all sexually active people. At least 75% of sexually active people will get HPV at some time in their lives. HPV is most common in young women and men who are in their late teens and early 20s.
  • Most women and men do not know when they are infected with HPV. There are usually no symptoms. Anyone who has ever had genital contact with another person can get HPV. Both women and men can get it and pass it on to their sex partners without even realizing it. An abnormal Pap test result is usually a woman’s first clue, but most HPV-infected women do not ever have an abnormal Pap test result.
  • HPV is a family of very common viruses that cause almost all cervical cancers, plus a variety of other problems like common warts, genital warts and plantar warts. HPV also causes cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus, penis, skin, and cancers of the head and neck.
  • The most common cancer-causing types of the virus are 16 and 18. This is important to know because these two types alone cause about 70% of all cervical cancer. The current cervical cancer vaccines protect nearly 100% against these two types of HPV when given in the full three dose series, on time, and in the routinely recommended age groups.
  • There are over 35 known different HPV types that infect the genital tract and at least 15 of these can lead to cervical cancer. The vaccines do not protect against all of these types. This is why you need to continue to get screening which includes a Pap test.
  • Recent studies suggest that condoms provide some protection against the HPV infection. However, since condoms do not cover all areas that can be the source of the spread of HPV, they do not offer complete protection. However, in addition to HPV protection, condoms do reduce the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted disease when used all the time and in the right way.
  • The only sure way to prevent HPV is to abstain from all sexual activity. Sexually active adults can reduce their risk by being in a mutually faithful relationship with someone who has had no other or few sex partners, or by limiting their number of sex partners. But even persons with only one lifetime sex partner can get HPV if their partner has had previous partners.

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