Here’s Why You Should Do A Cervical Screening This Month
We hope taking better care of your health is among your new year’s resolutions because we at FindMeCure are back on schedule, raising awareness and sharing useful information and practical tips.
The month of January is recognized in the United States as Cervical Health Awareness Month and it’s the peak of year-long efforts to spread the knowledge about cervical cancer, HPV, methods of prevention and screening and ways to make cervical health a global-scale healthcare priority.
FindMeCure is very involved in promoting women’s health issues and advocating for better healthcare approaches when it comes to addressing gender-based biases resulting in inequality. We believe that health conditions specific to women are as much of a global healthcare concern as more general sex-neutral health issues are and should be addressed just the same, instead of as a marginal topic of limited interest.
So, we begin January by giving you some solid reasons as to why you should start the year with a cervical screening and also by giving you a good grasp of what HPV can and can’t do to your reproductive health.
HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), nearly all cases of cervical cancer can be attributed to HPV. HPV, however, is not just one but a group of more than 100 different viruses, of which 13 are considered high-risk, cancer-causing. There is some good news here because of those 13 high-risk types, two (type 16 and 18) are responsible for 70% of cervical cancers and these are precisely the two HPV types that you can get vaccinated against.
We’re not trying to scare you here. However, you should be informed about your health risks, and the options you have to avoid them. So, to put things in perspective, here are some cervical cancer numbers that begin to paint a picture of the issue and why it’s so important to address it and advocate for regular screening: globally, cervical cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related death in women; annually in the US nearly 10 000 women get cervical cancer and about one-third of them die as a result of it.
HPV-related cervical cancer is preventable
HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases and one of the hardest to prevent. Even good sexual education and teaching people to be vigilant about protection is not enough to lift the global burden of HPV infections.
Because the HPV viruses are most active in the uppermost layer of the skin and the mucosa, instead of the bodily fluids like most other STDs, skin-to-skin genital contact and even sometimes deep kisses can be a mode of transmission. Any form of barrier protection (male or female condoms, as well dental dams for oral sex) is always a good idea when having sexual contact with a new partner but is not 100% guaranteed to be effective against HPV transmission.
The only way for women to effectively protect themselves against cervical cancer is to get vaccinated against type 16 and type 18 HPV. And the best time to get vaccinated is in adolescence – for both men and women before they start being sexually active and get exposed to the virus.
Girls as young as 11 or 12 need two shots of the vaccine, six months apart, while for teenagers receiving three shots in the span of six months is the standard practice.
Okay, but what if you’re a sexually active woman in your 20s or maybe in your 30s and your parents missed the opportunity to vaccinate you early on, can you still get the vaccine? Until recently both types of the HPV vaccine were only approved by the FDA for adults no older than 26. This is now considered outdated, however, and as of October 2018 Gardasil 9, the vaccine effective for over 4 most common types of HPV, was approved for adults aged 27 to 45. So, provided you’re not currently infected with a type of the HPV virus and you’re younger than 45, you can still get vaccinated. As a matter of fact, most medical professionals recommend that you do as the vaccine is highly effective against the strains of the virus it’s designed to protect from.
HPV is not a cancer-sentence
We said earlier that our goal is not to scare you into a panic attack, so let’s quickly clear this common misconception. While, yes, HPV is untreatable, there is no cure for it yet or even therapy, in most cases the virus goes away on its own. Depending on the medical professional you ask, the prognosis can vary – some people clear the virus in the first six months after being infected, while for some immune systems it can take up to two years.
However, clearing one strain of the virus doesn’t mean you can’t get infected with another at any point in the future. This is why prevention should be your first thought and prevention includes regular screening.
Cervical screening saves lives
The Pap smear, though the most common method, is not the end-all of cervical screening. In fact, it has been effective in detecting abnormal pre-cancerous cells mostly in developed countries but it’s not the go-to method of prevention in the developing world where HPV DNA testing has the bigger potential to save lives.
Recommendations for the frequency of cervical screening and age of first screening vary from country to country. Anywhere between once every 3 years to once every 5 years in the absence of concerning results or indications is the most common standard. And the age for a first time screening can be surprisingly high – 25 is the general recommendation in Canada, for example.
Regardless of the age of first-time screening and the frequency recommended in each country, a 2007 study suggests that there is a correlation between cervical screening and lower risk of developing cervical cancer. According to the results of the study, a history of even a single Pap smear is linked to lower cervical cancer risk. But the benefits of the Pap smear don’t end there – the higher the number of Pap smears a woman had, the higher the “decline in the HPV positivity rate”.
The researchers hypothesized that the mere act of receiving a Pap smear was enough to induce an inflammatory response that in turn gives a signal to the immune system to do its job and counteract the virus. In a randomized controlled trial with a group of 80 women, they observed a significant immune response in the women who received a Pap smear at the beginning of the trial, compared to those who didn’t.
We hope this final piece of information tips the scale and you schedule a check-up for yourself so you can start the year by making some good health decisions. Remember that a huge part of ‘self-care’ is keeping your body healthy by doing the mundane and sometimes unpleasant tasks of scheduling doctor’s appointments.