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Pap Smears and HPV Vaccination

More than 11,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year. The good news? Vaccination and regular screening can prevent the disease. During Cervical Health Awareness Month, it’s time to understand the steps that can be taken to protect yourself and your loved ones from cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer is a growth of cells that starts in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Most cervical cancer cases are caused by various strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a common infection that’s passed by sexual contact. Typically, the body’s immune system can prevent the virus from harm. For a small percentage of people, the virus can survive for years. This delay can cause cervical cells to change into cancer cells.

One way to reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer is regular screenings with your primary care provider of gynecologist and receiving the HPV vaccine that protects against HPV infection.

The HPV vaccine protects against genital warts and most cases of cervical cancer. It protects against cancer of the vagina, vulva, penis, or anus caused by HPV. The HPV vaccine also protects against mouth, throat, head, and neck cancers caused by HPV.

The vaccine gives the body a safe way to build immune system awareness of some HPV strains. This means the body has an easier time clearing out those strains of the virus if a person catches them later.

Who is the HPV vaccine for and when should it be given?

The Gardasil 9 vaccine is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for people aged 9 and older. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests routine HPV vaccination at age 11 or 12. People younger than age 15 can be vaccinated with two doses, 6 to 12 months apart. The ideal age for vaccination is before a person is sexually active.

Once a person is infected with HPV, the vaccine may not be as effective. That’s because the vaccine’s goal is to prevent a new infection. If a person has the virus, the vaccine may not help the body clear out the vaccine.

The CDC suggests catch-up HPV vaccinations for all people through age 26 who aren’t fully vaccinated. The FDA approved the use of Gardasil 9 for males and females ages 9 to 45. If between the ages of 27 to 45, discuss your risks with your healthcare team. Together you can decide if you should get the HPV vaccine.

The HPV vaccine is not recommended if a person has an allergic reaction after the first HPV shot, or if a person has severe, life-threatening allergies, or is pregnant. Also, people who are moderately or severely ill should wait until they feel better to get vaccinated for HPV.

A well-proven way to prevent cervical cancer is to have screening tests. Screening tests find conditions that may lead to cancers and can find pre-cancers before they can turn into invasive cancers. The Pap test (or Pap smear) and the human papillomavirus (HPV) test are specific tests used during screening for cervical cancer. These tests are done the same way. A health professional uses a special tool to gently scrape or brush the cervix to remove cells for testing. If a pre-cancer is found it can be treated, keeping it from turning into a cervical cancer.

Besides receiving the HPV vaccine, other preventative measures can be taken. The Pap test or smear is a procedure used to collect cells from the cervix so that they can be looked at closely in the lab to find cancer and pre-cancer It’s crucial to understand that most cases of invasive cervical cancers are identified in women who have not undergone regular Pap tests. A Pap test can be done during a pelvic exam, but not all pelvic exams include a Pap test.

The result of the HPV test, along with your past test results, determines your risk of developing cervical cancer. If the test is positive, this could mean more follow-up visits, more tests to look for a pre-cancer or cancer, and sometimes a procedure to treat any pre-cancers that might be found.

It is best to talk to your healthcare provider about your screening test results in more detail to fully understand your risk of developing cervical cancer and the next steps. If you don’t have a primary care provider or would like to get set up with seeing a gynecologist, the Obstetrics & Gynecology team at Southwest Health is excited to welcome its newest member, Mary Beth Wampfler, MD!

Covering preventative and routine care, family planning, and conception, as well as advanced gynecological and surgical care, the Obstetrics & Gynecology team provides experience, respect, and a genuine passion for understanding individual needs. To make an appointment with Dr. Steven Bujewski, Dr. Mary Beth Wampfler, or Dr. Melissa Carr, call Southwest Health at (608) 342-0986.