Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Cervical Cancer Vaccine - What You Need to Know

Cervical Cancer - Cancer of the cervix, uterus and vagina are commonly grouped under Cervical Cancer. It is the fourth most common cause of death due to cancer among women. But interestingly enough, it is the most common cancer detected among women in the age group 15-34 years. Among women, it is the only type of cancer that can be caused by sexual transmission.

Causes - Most doctors agree that cervical cancer can only develop if one has been exposed to HPV ( Human Papilloma Virus ), a sexually transmitted infection. And the risk increases as one is exposed to multiple strains of the virus, which is the case when one has multiple sexual partners. But at the same time, not everyone who is exposed to HPV will develop cervical cancer. HPV is just another infection that peters out by itself or goes away when treated with drugs.

The secondary risk factors which increase one's chances of developing Cervical Cancer are -
  • Smoking 
  • Weakened Immune System - HIV, AIDS and other disease/age can lower immunity 
  • Long term exposure to Oral contraceptives
  • Multiple Pregnancies are also linked to increased risk.
Who is at a risk ?

1. Women having multiple sexual partners.
2. Women having a single sexual partner who in turn has multiple sexual partners.

Therefore, one can safely conclude that any sexually active woman is at a risk of developing Cervical cancer.

Prevention via Safe Sex - It is impossible to develop Cervical Cancer without being exposed to HPV. Hence practicing safe sex certainly helps in preventing it. But HPV can be transmitted through contact with  infected genital skin, mucous membranes, or bodily fluids. Therefore, a condom cannot provide full protection against it.

Prevention via Vaccination - Gardasil and Cervarix do not provide protection against all strains of HPV. It targets only those HPV strains that are known to cause Cervical cancer. But when one is already exposed to one or more strains of HPV, the vaccine efficiency is reduced. Moreover, the vaccine does not treat HPV if one is already infected nor it is effective in preventing other sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, HIV, syphilis, and trichomoniasis.

But the vaccine provides some protection against anal cancer, vulvar cancer, vaginal cancer and genital warts. The vaccine's efficiency increases if given at a younger age.

Right Age for Vaccination - The right time for this vaccination is before the onset of sexual activity. That is why it is recommended that it should be given to girls in the age group 11-12 years. But one can still take the vaccine till the age of 26. In countries like US and UK, Cervical cancer vaccination is not recommended for women above 26 years of age. Instead, they are advised to go for regular PAP smear test.

Who Cannot Take the Vaccine ? - Pregnant ladies are advised to stay away from the vaccine.

Note - Once a person is already infected with HPV, the efficiency of this vaccine is reduced.  Or, in some cases, it may even become redundant. Therefore, getting vaccinated is no excuse for skipping the Pap smear test once one crosses 25 years of age ( or even younger if one is sexually active ).

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