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Published on September 30, 2016

The HPV Vaccine Reduces the Risk for Cervical Cancer

In the 10 years since it was first released, the HPV vaccine has reduced the infection rate of the human papillomavirus by 90 percent. Researchers reviewed results from millions of doses of the vaccine in more than 130 countries. They found that the success of this vaccination has an important and positive impact on cervical cancer.

“Today it is very well understood that if you have cervical cancer, it is most likely caused by a high-risk strain of the HPV virus,” said Mark Shahin, MD, director of the Hanjani Institute for Gynecological Oncology at Abington - Jefferson Health. “Over 11,000 women per year will be diagnosed with cervical cancer, and in 91 percent of these cases, HPV will be the cause.”

HPV: The Facts

HPV is a very common virus. As many as 80 percent of people, both male and female, will be infected with at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives. In most people, the virus is harmless and goes away by itself over time. However, in others, it can cause complications such as genital warts and cancer.

There are many different kinds of HPV:

  • In total, there are over 100 strains of HPV that affect different parts of the body
  • 40 of those strains are sexually transmitted
  • 15 HPV strains are considered high risk for cancer
  • HPV types 6 and 11 cause genital warts and affect 350,000 men and women
  • HPV types 16 and 18 are responsible for 75 percent of all cervical cancer diagnoses

An analysis of your pap smear will determine if you have HPV and what strain of HPV you have.

"You can acquire HPV through sexual contact with someone who has the virus,” said Dr. Shahin. “Using condoms is essential for preventing sexually transmitted diseases. However, because HPV may be transmitted from parts of your body not covered by a condom, condoms may reduce the rate of transmission, but not fully prevent it."

Since HPV cannot be prevented consistently with the use of barrier methods of birth control such as condoms, getting vaccinated is the surest way to prevent infections and reduce cervical cancer risk.

What is Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer is cancer of the cervix, which is located at the lower part of the uterus above the vagina. It develops when cells lining the cervix grow out of control and cause pre-cancerous abnormalities. If these abnormalities are not found and treated, they may become tumors that spread into surrounding tissues.

While certain factors like the use of oral contraceptives, smoking and a woman’s immune system may play a part in developing cervical cancer, infections with high-risk strains of HPV are the leading cause of the disease.

The Importance of the HPV Vaccine

HPV vaccines are designed to reduce the transmission of HPV types 6, 11, 16 and 18. The newest vaccines have been expanded to provide protection for nine different strains of the virus. However, in order for the vaccine to be effective and reduce the risk for developing cervical cancer, it must be administered at the right time in a female’s life.

“The best time to get the HPV vaccine is before the first sexual encounter,” said Dr. Shahin. “The vaccine regimen, which is administered in three doses over six months, should ideally start at 11 years old.”

Some parents are reluctant to move forward with the vaccine for their children at such a young age, but there is evidence that getting it early is most effective statistically. While the vaccine is recommended for anyone up to 26 years old, it’s typically less effective after someone has been exposed to the virus through sexual contact.

“Worldwide, cervical cancer is a significant problem. Over 250,000 women, many of them between the ages of 20 and 50, die from the disease every year,” said Dr. Shahin. “If we make a dent in the rate of HPV infection through the vaccine, it will keep many more women healthy – and alive.”

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