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Cancer breakthrough
A vaccine to protect against cervical cancer

» How does it work?

» Who should get it?

» How effective is it?

» Are Pap tests still necessary?

A new vaccine that helps prevent cervical cancer is an important breakthrough in the war against cancer. Cervical cancer affects an estimated 11,000 women each year, and nearly 4,000 women die from the disease. Read on to learn how the vaccine can protect you and your loved ones.

How does it work?

Cervical cancer is caused by infection with certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV). More than 100 types of HPV exist, and about a third of them may be passed from one person to another through sexual contact. More than 20 million American men and women are currently infected with HPV, and about 6 million new genital HPV infections occur each year. Although most HPV infections don’t cause any symptoms and go away on their own, some infections persist, cause genital warts or trigger cell abnormalities in the cervix that lead to cancer. The vaccine guards against four HPV strains responsible for 70 percent of all cervical cancers and 90 percent of all genital warts cases.

Who should get it?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine for use in females ages 9 to 26. The vaccine is most effective when given before HPV infection, so it’s recommended women receive the vaccine before sexual activity begins. Women who are already infected with HPV can still be vaccinated, however, to guard against the other strains of HPV that the vaccine prevents. Vaccination involves a series of three doses given over six months. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises all girls to begin the vaccination series at age 11 or 12, though it may begin as early as age 9. Other females up to age 26 should receive the vaccine as well, even if they’re already sexually active.

How effective is it?

In women who had not already been infected, the vaccine was found to prevent nearly 100 percent of the precancerous cervical changes caused by the HPV strains targeted by the vaccine. So far, scientists know the immunity will last four years. Studies are ongoing to determine whether a booster dose may be needed. No serious side effects have been reported among the thousands of women involved in the trials. The most common symptoms were soreness at the injection site, low-grade fever and flulike symptoms.

Are Pap tests still necessary?

Yes. Both vaccinated and unvaccinated women still need regular Pap tests to screen for precancerous cervical changes. Although the vaccine prevents the high-risk HPV strains that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers, other strains not targeted by the vaccine cause the remaining 30 percent of cases.

© 2014 Dowden Health Media