Have you been tested?

Priscilla Tasker

Three out of four people are expected to be infected during their lifetime

Sixty years ago, cervical cancer was the leading cancer in females. Although it is less prominent in 2007, the virus that causes it is still on the rise.

“Human papilloma virus causes (warts) and causes cancer of the vagina, vulva and cervix,” said James Fanning, doctor of gynecology and oncology.

HPV is a common infection among sexually active individuals. Three out of four people are expected to be infected throughout their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site.

“The problem with HPV is that it’s everywhere,” Fanning said.

However, most people are not aware of an infection because in many cases, “it has no symptoms so they don’t go see their doctors,” Fanning said.

The American Cancer Association recommends women to have an annual Pap test, which screens for abnormal cells in the cervix. This testing method has rapidly decreased the mortality rate of cervical cancer since 1955, according to the ACA Web site.

Women risk the consequence of developing cancer if they do not get screened, said Dr. Michael Hopkins, gynecological oncologist.

“One of the worst cases I’ve seen was a 28-year-old woman with advanced cervical cancer, who had not had a Pap screening in 10 years,” Fanning said. “The Pap test is the best testing method for cancer, it’s better than a mammogram – we could almost wipe out cervical cancer if women had a Pap every year.”

The screening allows for the early detection of HPV and pre-cancerous cells. In most cases the cells can simply be removed through the Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure which is performed in a doctor’s office or clinic in a few minutes, according to literature published by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

There is currently no testing method for men, but “if you were to test men, almost all would have HPV,” Fanning said.

The risk of HPV infection is proportionately linked to the number of sexual partners a person has, according to a report on the CDC’s Web site.

“The risk of infection can be decreased by not having intercourse or by wearing condoms,” Fanning said.

Other factors that increase the seriousness of infection include smoking because it reduces the immune system’s ability to fight off disease, a compromised immune system due to HIV or medications, and intercourse at an early age.

The advent of Gardasil, the first FDA approved HPV vaccine, has prompted legislators to push for bills requiring girls 11 and 12 years of age to be vaccinated before entering the sixth grade, according to the National Association of State Legislature Web site.

It is recommended that girls receive the vaccine at an early age because changes in the cervix occurring at ages 13 to 15 increase the risk of contracting an HPV infection, Fanning said.

The vaccine, like testing methods, is not approved for men.

If legislators choose to mandate the administration of the vaccine, it raises the ethical question of whether or not we should test men and vaccinate boys, Fanning said. “Vaccinating young boys would make logical sense,” he said.

The high cost of the vaccine is also an issue, according to the NCSL Web site. The vaccine must be administered in three doses, which add up to a total cost of $360.

Several local Health Departments are waiving the cost of the vaccine for under- and uninsured females 18 years of age and under. To be eligible for the cost waiver girls must meet the requirements outlined under the Vaccines for Children program. Eligible recipients will be charged a small fee for the administration of the vaccine.

Contact health trends reporter Priscilla Tasker at [email protected].