Cervical cancer awareness: Why young women need vaccination against this common disease

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The Cervical Cancer Awareness Month is observed in January every year. It is important to know about the second most common cancer among Indian women. However, it is also one of the most preventable cancers, with a vaccine that can substantially reduce the incidence of precancerous lesions and the cancer with great success. So, it is essential to vaccinate young women against cervical cancer to lower the burden of the disease.

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is undoubtedly a highly curable type of cancer, especially when it is in early stages. The virus responsible for causing the condition is called the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). Those infected with a high risk oncogenic subtype of this virus, over the course of 15 to 20 years, can develop a precancerous condition called dysplasia, which, if left untreated, can lead to cancer. A large number of women may contract HPV infection during their reproductive lives, but the infection can be eliminated by the body most of the time. The only time it can lead to cancer is if it becomes persistent.

Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among Indian women. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Risk factors of cervical cancer

Women with early marriages and sexual activity, or those who conceive before the age of 20 and have multiple pregnancies without adequate spacing, are at a higher risk of cervical cancer. Though women with multiple sexual partners are particularly at risk of developing the cancer, cervical cancer can also occur in women with monogamous sexual behaviour. The use of tobacco, lack of intimate hygiene as  well as being immunocompromised with an HIV infection, can be contributing factors too. Lifestyle changes to prevent gynaecological cancers can include good genital hygiene, by using condoms to prevent Sexually Transmitted Diseases and stopping tobacco use, we can to a great extent prevent this cancer.

Prevention and importance of vaccination against cervical cancer

The most effective way to prevent cervical cancer is to get vaccinated against the HPV, at a young age, before you engage in a sexual activity. According to studies, vaccines administered to girls between 9-12 years of age, can reduce the incidence of precancerous lesions and cancer. Girls who did not receive the vaccine in their younger years should still receive it up until they turn 26. Everyone should make sure that they receive the full series of three doses to get the best protection possible. It is important to talk to your physician in order to make an informed decision about whether or not this vaccine is right for you or your child.

The cervical cancer vaccine has been shown to offer a wide range of life-saving benefits. The vaccine is easy and painless to administer and offers long-term protection against cervical cancer. Moreover, the HPV virus can also cause other types of cancer, such as head and neck cancer, so it is important for all young women to get vaccinated to prevent chances of developing other types of cancer.

Vaccination against cervical cancer is important. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

How vaccination prevents cancer development?

The vaccine works by introducing small amounts of viral proteins into the body in order to trigger an immune response. This causes the body to develop antibodies that will protect against specific types of HPV infections that can cause certain forms of cancer. It is important to note that it does not prevent all forms of HPV, so regular check-ups and screenings are still needed. Cervical cancer vaccines are safe and widely available in India, so women should be encouraged to get them.

Detection

In cervical cancer, the diagnosis can be delayed. This may be because the symptoms don’t show up in the precancerous stage and early stages. In most cases, the disease is identified in advanced stages. This makes it important for women to get themselves regularly checked even if no symptoms surface. Some of the early symptoms, however, may include:

* Vaginal bleeding between two menstrual periods
* Bleeding during or after sex
* Bleeding after menopause
* Excessive blood-stained vaginal discharge.

All doctors recommend sexually active women over 21 years of age must undergo a pap smear once in three years or more often, if possible. If access to this test may be limited, such as in rural areas, women can undergo a simple visual examination of the cervix.

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