Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix which is the lower part of your uterus that enters into the vagina. It has been found that a virus called the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is linked to cervical cancer. This virus has also been linked to genital warts and other less common genital cancers— including cancers of the anus, vagina, and vulva (area around the opening of the vagina).
There are about forty different types of HPV, each one carrying a different amount of risk of cervical cancer. The highest risk cervical cancer causing HPV strains are 16 and 18 which cause about 70% of all cervical cancers.2
Most women have no symptoms of cervical cancer therefore it is important to be regular with your pap smears to detect if you have early changes of this type of cancer.
In June 2006 the first vaccine to prevent cervical cancer and other diseases in females caused by certain types of genital Human Papillomavirus was released. The vaccine is called Gardasil® and it protects against four HPV types, which together cause 70% of cervical cancers and 90% of genital warts.2
The vaccine is currently recommended for all women 9 to 26 years of age. It is felt that the vaccine is most effective if given to non-sexually active women as women who are sexually active may have already been exposed to the virus strains covered in the vaccine. However, just because you are sexually active does not mean that you should not or cannot get the vaccine.
This vaccine comes in a series of three shots over a 6-month period. The second and third doses are given 2 and 6 months (respectively) after the first dose.
Because the vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV, it will not prevent all cases of cervical cancer or genital warts. About 30% of cervical cancers will not be prevented by the vaccine, so it will be important for women to continue getting screened for cervical cancer by getting regular Pap Smear tests. Also, the vaccine does not prevent about 10% of genital warts—nor will it prevent other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). So it will still be important for sexually active adults to reduce exposure to HPV and other STIs.1
This vaccine does not treat existing HPV infections, genital warts, pre-cancers or cancers.
Am I at Risk of Having Cervical Cancer?
Women who are at risk of developing cervical cancer include those who:
-Have history of sexually transmitted diseases
-Have history of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
-Smoke (While nicotine is not considered a causative agent, smoking may predispose a
woman to develop cervical cancer by lowering her immune system)
-Come from low socioeconomic status
-Have had two or more lifetime sexual partners
-Have a low immune system (example: have AIDS, are on chemotherapy)
How Can I Prevent Cervical Cancer?
-Abstinence: The only SURE way to prevent cervical cancer is abstaining from all sexual activity
Sexually active women can help prevent and/or decrease risk of cervical cancer by:
-Pap Smears: Getting regular Pap Smears from your physician
-Limit the number of sex partners as having more sexual partners puts you at a higher risk
of getting the virus
-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.
-Using Condoms: It is not known how much protection condoms provide against HPV, since
areas that are not covered by a condom can be exposed to the virus. However, condoms
may decrease the risk of genital warts and cervical cancer. They can also reduce the risk
of HIV and some other Sexually Transmitted Infections, when used all the time and the
Where Do I Get the HPV Vaccine?
Ask your primary care doctor about whether you qualify to get the vaccine and if they carry it.
Also, contact your insurance company to see if they cover the vaccine cost. As of 3/2007 it costs approximately $120 for each shot ($360 for the series). Some states also provide free or low-cost vaccines at public health department clinics to people without health insurance coverage for vaccines.
Are There Any Precautions About the Vaccine?
Women who are pregnant or are allergic to any component of the vaccine should not receive this vaccine.