In 2016, approximately 12,990 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer, and more than 4,000 died, reports the American Cancer Society (ACS). Researchers have made great strides in working to prevent cervical cancer, such as developing a vaccine for human pampilloma virus (HPV), yet others argue that further evidence is needed to mandate its widespread use. Since cervical cancer ranks among the most common causes of cancer in American women, the importance of understanding this disease cannot be overstated.

In fact, Congress has designated January as National Cervical Health Awareness Month, explains the National Cervical Cancer Coalition (NCCC). Unfortunately, there continues to be much public doubt and distrust in information relating to cervical cancer prevalence and risk. Consequently, you must work to increase awareness of this disease by including its dangers and statistics in health and human services (HHS) provider employee training and in information distributed by your organization to the public.

 

Who Gets Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer tends to begin during midlife, and most cases are found in women under age 50. However, it can be diagnosed in women of older ages as well. Fortunately, the number of cases diagnosed after age 65 declines due to routine health visits and cervical cancer screenings. In the U.S., cervical cancer affects Hispanic women the most, followed by African-Americans, Asians, Pacific-Islanders and Caucasians.

The disproportionate effect of cervical cancer among non-Caucasians may also indicate that people of lower socio-economic status may not have access to prescreening and preventative health measures that allow for early detection of cervical cancer. In some cases, these groups may not be able to obtain the HPV vaccination, increasing the lifetime risk for the illness.

 

What Exactly Does HPV Have to Do With Cervical Cancer?

HPV can be transmitted by anyone who has been sexually active, including simple skin-to-skin conduct near the genitals. Most people who contract HPV never actually develop HPV genital infections, explains the National Cancer Institute, but the virus can remain dormant for decades.

The high-risk HPVs, E6 and E7, cause the overproduction of specific proteins in epithelial cells, which inhibit normal cell function. Over time, the overproduction can result in changes to the genetic structure of the cells, resulting in the formation of precancerous cells and subsequent tumors.

 

Can the Vaccine Treat HPV Infection?

The vast amount of information on social media and the internet about HPVs has created a misconception among today’s youth. The assumption is made that the HPV vaccines, Gardasil 9, Gardasil and Cervarix, can effectively treat an HPV infection. However, the nature of the vaccine depends on its administration prior to transmission, and since transmission may occur during the first sexual encounter, pre-sexual vaccination is the only way to ensure that HPV infection does not occur.

 

What About the Controversy Over Use of HPV by HHS Organizations?

Put politics aside for a moment.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) monitor all new vaccines for safety and effectiveness. Per the CDC, all three vaccines have been determined to be safe and effective. Like any vaccine, they do come with a few adverse reactions or side effects, which may include the following:

  • Pain, redness or swelling at the site of injection
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Muscle or joint pain

However, the CDC and FDA have determined that the potential health benefits of HPV vaccination, especially preventing cervical cancer, outweigh any risk for side effects. In fact, the CDC recommends the HPV vaccine, a means of ensuring child welfare, for girls and boys ages 11 through 12.

Although Cervical Health Month focuses on women’s health, the relationship between cervical cancer and HPV can also be an excellent opportunity for HHS organizations to provide training on how HPV may cause cancers in men. This includes the development of skin, penile, anal and oropharyngeal cancers in men, further raising awareness for HPV-related cancers alike. 

 

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Cervical Cancer?

There are three primary indicators of cervical cancer, which include abnormal vaginal bleeding, vaginal discharge, or pain during intercourse, asserts the ACS. However, these symptoms may indicate the presence of other health problems, such as pelvic injury and sexually transmitted diseases or infections (STDs/ STIs).

 

How Is Cervical Cancer Diagnosed?

Cervical cancer diagnosis requires testing of cervical tissues. Depending on a person's age, screening guidelines may reflect the use of Pap tests individually or in conjunction with HPV screening. These guidelines are as follows:

  • At age 21, all women should begin cervical cancer screenings, regardless of previous HPV vaccination.
  • Women between ages 21 and 29 should receive Pap tests every three years, but an abnormal Pap test may indicate the need for additional screening of HPV.
  • Women between ages 30 and 65 should have a Pap test combined with HPV test every five years.

Women who have been diagnosed with cervical cancer, precancerous cells, HIV or other major health concerns may be asked to complete screenings more frequently.

Screening allows precancerous or abnormal cervix cells to be treated before they become a full-blown tumor. In fact, early detection of cervical cancer has given it one of the highest rankings for successfully treatable cancers. Unfortunately, many women fail to complete screening as recommended, so any opportunity to encourage screening must be explored.

 

What’s Next?

HHS provider employee training gives your staff members the tools and resources needed to provide more information to the public about their health risk. This January, make sure your employees recognize the importance of National Cervical Health Awareness Month by reminding all women over age 21 that screening is key to preventing cervical cancer. Consider creating pamphlets to distribute, or host an HPV vaccination clinic for low-income and at-risk communities. These small steps will add up to life-saving benefits for those who do not understand how prevalent and dangerous HPV and cervical cancer can be.