Cancer specialists at the UT Southwestern Medical Center are reminding women to continue going for Pap smears even if they have received the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.
About one in four individuals living in the United States are infected with some type of human papillomavirus (HPV), which is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) refer to it as the most common sexually transmitted infection in the country. The CDC states that, “HPV is a group of more than 150 related viruses. Each HPV virus in this large group is given a number which is called its HPV type.” Some types of the virus are known to result in a number of diseases and cancers, such as cervical cancer.
According to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition (NCCC), each year, 13,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the United States alone. Luckily, the majority of cases that are caused by HPV are preventable as there is a vaccine that offers protection against the HPV types that are known to result in a number of cancers, including cancer of the cervix.
The CDC reports that almost everyone (both men and women) will become infected with at least one type of HPV at one point during their lives. One of the possible contributing factors to what makes HPV infections so common is that because most infections are asymptomatic, individuals may unknowingly transmit the infection to their sexual partners. Therefore, receiving the vaccine is the best way to be protected.
Although the vaccine offers protection against HPV, cancer specialists at the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas want to remind women that they should continue to go for Pap smears, even if they have received the vaccine.
Jayanthi S. Lea, MD, gynecologic oncologist said in the press release, “Women at any age with a history of HPV vaccination should continue to be screened. The vaccine reduces the risk of cancer, but has not yet been shown to eliminate the need for screening.”
Pap smears, developed in 1941, are tests that look for any changes in the cells on the cervix that can potentially progress into cervical cancer if not appropriately treated; they are recommended by the CDC for all women who are between the ages of 21 and 65.
Dr. Lea explained, “Routine cervical screening for women under age 21 and over 65 is no longer recommended. Research has found that testing every three years is sufficient, unless the patient has a health history that requires more frequent screening. There is also the option of combining a Pap test with HPV testing. When testing is done this way, it is typically performed every five years.”
She added that women who do not have a history of cervical cancer and have had a total hysterectomy—a surgery that removes the entire uterus as well as the cervix—may not need to have any further Pap tests.
With January being Cervical Health Awareness Month, the NCCC, a program of the American Sexual Health Association is working to highlight cervical cancer-related issues as well as provide the public with educational materials on HPV as well as early detection.