Americans are in a position to wipe out cervical cancer in the next generation through adolescent human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccination. Yet only a third of girls and one fifth of boys in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, compared to more than 70 percent in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, and 97 percent in Rwanda.

Childhood vaccination

Many parents don’t understand the effectiveness, safety and social acceptability of the HPV vaccine. They fear their children will become sexually active once they’ve received the vaccine. In reality, when administered with other childhood vaccinations, preteens are unlikely to equate normal childhood vaccines with sexual activity or specific disease prevention unless educated by their parents.

Adolescent HPV vaccines prevent most cervical, vaginal, vulvar and anal cancers. They are also expected to prevent most penile and oropharyngeal cancers, although rates of several of those are increasing. With HPV vaccination, one single tool can prevent multiple cancers. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made vaccination easier by reducing recommended doses from three to two for children aged 9 to 14. Ages 15 to 26 still require three doses for full protection.

“With HPV vaccination, one single tool can prevent multiple cancers.”

Preemptive measures

In addition, campaigns to increase Pap testing in adult women have contributed to a 70 percent decrease in cervical cancer death rates since 1969. Regular testing detects lesions for removal before they become cancerous.

Women at average risk should have cervical cancer screening with a Pap test every three years from age 21 to 65. After age 30, woman can continue the three-year cycle or receive HPV and Pap testing every five years (preferred).  Women ages 66+ who have had three or more consecutive negative Pap tests, or two or more consecutive negative HPV and Pap tests within the past 10 years, with the most recent test occurring in the past five years, should stop screening.

Several factors are known to increase the risk of both persistent HPV infection and progression to cancer, including a suppressed immune system, a high number of childbirths, and cigarette smoking. Long-term use of oral contraceptives and obesity and high belly fat are also associated with increased risk of cervical cancer.

However, taking proactive measures such as childhood vaccination and consistent screenings could greatly reduce the risk of HPV infection turning into cervical cancer.