The recent COVID19 pandemic has us all thinking about
vaccination as an essential part of how we protect ourselves and the people around us from disease. Despite some worries about adverse effects, vaccines are used around the world to combat a variety of diseases and infections which saves countless lives. Vaccine access varies considerably: where one lives, access to health care and knowledge about the risks and benefits of vaccines all play a role in vaccine utilization.
With an eye on Gynecologic health, let’s shift the focus and use World Immunization Week to clear up a few details about Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination and cervical cancer.
The World Health Organization (WHO) uses the last week of April each year to generate increased awareness about the use of vaccines to promote health and wellness for everyone. Their motto this year – “Vaccines Bring Us Closer” – resonates with many during a time of increased social distancing and limited interaction with family/friends/peers. The WHO suggests that, through vaccination, we can safely come together and share space. It also points to the need for collaboration to ensure vaccine access for everyone. No doubt there is much truth to all of this, whether we are talking about fighting highly contagious infections like COVID19 or the slow, gradual effects of a virus like HPV, which can cause cervical and other cancers over a long period of time.
HPV: Cervical Cancer and More
Cervical cancer is primarily caused by certain high-risk strains of HPV, a virus that is transmitted through sexual activity. HPV infection rates are high in the United States. Nearly one in three women will have screen positive for HPV through routine screening for cervical cancer at some point in their life. Keep in mind, most HPV infections resolve on their own and do not result in cancer
Each year, 35,900 individuals are diagnosed with cervical cancer and approximately 196,000 cervical precancer cases are identified through screening. There are virtually no signs or symptoms of HPV and most people are unaware that they have an infection. There is no medication to clear the virus. Treatment of persistent or worsening abnormal cervical cells involve surgery. Condom use appears to decrease rates of cervical cancer, but it is not clear how helpful condom use can be in decreasing risk of HPV infection. It all sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it?
The HPV Vaccine and Your Immune System
Good news! One of the primary tools to decrease cervical cancer risk lies within ourselves – our immune system. The other is vaccination. The HPV vaccine helps boost your immune system as you develop antibodies against the virus which, in turn, help to protect against cervical cancer. The current 9-valent HPV vaccine (Gardasil-9) is effective at preventing infection by nine high-risk strains of HPV, driving down the risk of HPV-related cancers. Previously, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that all individuals between ages nine and 26 years old receive this vaccine. In June 2019, the CDC revised their recommendation to include women up through age 45, noting that cervical cancer rates are decreasing in large part due to HPV vaccination.
Sign Me Up!
While the HPV vaccine is effective at preventing infection, it does not help the immune system clear current HPV infections. Therefore, prevention is key. Cervical cancer rates in the United States are going down, thanks in large part to the HPV vaccine which is believed to prevent over 90% of HPV-related cancers. HPV vaccination is most effective before a person starts having sex and is typically administered in a Pediatricians office.
If you have already completed the HPV vaccine series, that is fantastic! If you have not, please contact Bloom Ob/Gyn to learn more about how you can decrease your risks from within.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (March 17, 2020). HPV vaccine recommendations. CDC.gov. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/hpv/hcp/recommendations.html
World Health Organization. (2021). 24 to 30 April is World Immunization Week. WHO.int. https://www.who.int/campaigns/world-immunization-week