Cervical cancer is a devastating disease, although it is preventable and curable if detected early enough. Until recently, a woman's only defense against the disease was early detection through routine Pap tests. The tests screen for abnormal cells, often caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). According to the National Cancer Institute, HPV is the primary risk factor for cervical cancer.
Now there's another way to lower your risk of cervical cancer. There's now a vaccine for certain strains of HPV that will reduce the risk of cervical cancer for those who are vaccinated before they come into contact with the virus.
"Ideally, you want to get this vaccine before you become sexually active, because it can be less effective after someone has been exposed to HPV," says Lisa M. Oldham, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and pediatrics. "I would recommend that anyone between nine and 26 years old receive the vaccine now that it's available."
"The reason that we want to give it early is that the highest prevalence for exposure to HPV is in the 14- to 18-year old age group," says Oldham. "While this is somewhat shocking, it emphasizes the importance of having a frank discussion about sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases as soon as your child has the capacity to understand."
It's important to remember that while the vaccine covers the two most common types of cervical cancer-causing HPV and the two most common types of the genital wart-causing HPV, it does not provide protection from all HPV types. "Therefore, we can optimize the vaccine's potential by giving it before any HPV exposure has ever occurred," Oldham says. "Giving the vaccine after a young patient has become sexually active still has major benefits, but the vaccine could potentially be less effective against each HPV type covered in the vaccine."
The American Cancer Society recommends:
Visiting the Gynecologist Earlier
- Routine HPV vaccination for females aged 11 to 12 years.
- Girls as young as age 9 years may receive the HPV vaccination.
- The HPV vaccination is also recommended for females aged 13 to 18 years to catch up with missed vaccines or complete the vaccination series.
- The HPV vaccination is not currently recommended for women over age 26 years or for men.
- Both vaccinated and unvaccinated women should continue to get screened for abnormal cells and cancer in and around the cervix.
"My recommendation is that girls visit a gynecologist at a younger age than has been customary, probably between nine and 13-years old," Oldham says. "This can make them more comfortable about the process. It's also a perfect time for the parents to initiate these important conversations about sexual health, framed within their own family values and expectations. It can be a hard conversation to have, but it's necessary for the child's health and safety."
The vaccine is a series of three shots. "It's easy and safe," says Oldham, "but your child may have questions about why she is getting it, so be prepared for an honest and open discussion."
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