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Get Screened: January Is Cervical Health Awareness Month

Get Screened: January Is Cervical Health Awareness Month

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Each year, an estimated 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and, of those, about one-third will die as a result of the cancer. But cervical cancer is also a highly preventable and treatable cancer, thanks to improved screening and vaccination.

The American Social Health Association (ASHA) and the National Cervical Cancer Coalition have named January Cervical Health Awareness Month to encourage women across the country to get screened for cervical cancer and receive the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine if they're eligible.

Today, detection tools and inoculations make cervical cancer a condition that is relatively easy to prevent and treat. In women who are not vaccinated and not screened regularly, either due to a lack of information or inadequate health care, cervical cancer can still be a serious, even fatal, illness.

"Science has put us in a remarkable position to protect women from cervical cancer, but technology is only half the battle," said ASHA president and CEO Lynn Barclay. "It's imperative we continue efforts that not only promote greater access to health care, but that we also inform women about cervical cancer and the marvelous means we now have to prevent this disease."

This year, the organizations are focusing on increasing the number of eligible women getting the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. HPV is common among women and is the main cause of cervical cancer. It's estimated that at least 75 percent of the reproductive-age population has been infected with one or more types of genital HPV. In the vast majority of cases, the virus causes no symptoms or health problems and goes away on its own when a healthy immune system clears the infection. But, in about 5 percent of women, a persistent infection occurs with high-risk strains of HPV, which causes nearly all cases of cervical cancer.

The HPV vaccine, which must be given in three doses, can protect women against four HPV types—the two most common high-risk strains (HPV 16 and 18) and the two most common low-risk types (HPV 6 and 11). The vaccine should be given before an infection occurs, ideally, before a girl becomes sexually active.

Barclay noted that it's important for parents and primary care physicians to promote the vaccination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the inoculation for girls and women aged 11 to 26. Health care professionals are increasingly suggesting that teen boys and men get the vaccine as well.

"Fewer than half of girls and young women who are eligible for these vaccines have completed the three-dose series, so increasing vaccine uptake is a priority for us," said Barclay.

According to the National Institutes of Health, cervical cancer develops slowly, starting as a precancerous condition known as dysplasia. These abnormal cells are easily detected through a Pap test and can be treated effectively. There is also an HPV test that, when combined with a Pap test in women over age 30, can help identify women at risk for developing cervical cancer.

If left undetected, dysplasia can turn into cervical cancer, which can potentially spread to the bladder, intestines, lungs and liver. Moreover, women may not suspect cervical cancer until it has become advanced or metastasizes, a fact which underscores the importance of regular Pap tests. Talk to your health care provider about what screening tests you need and how often you need them.

Symptoms of cervical cancer, which may not show up until the cancer is advanced, include abnormal vaginal bleeding, unusual discharge, periods that last longer or have a heavier flow than usual and bleeding after menopause.