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The Global Problem of Cervix Cancer (And How We Can Solve It)

maxwellGeorge L. Maxwell, MD, is board certified in gynecologic oncology, obstetrics and gynecology. Dr. Maxwell’s interests are minimally invasive surgery techniques and ovarian cancer treatments. Recently, Dr. Maxwell attended and presented at a UN symposium dedicated to fighting cervical cancer in women around the world. Read Dr. Maxwell’s profile.

On June 18, I was honored to participate at a symposium organized by the Inova Health System, along with Permanent Mission of Grenada at the United Nations. During the forum, “A Call to Action: Eradication of Cervix Cancer,” physician leaders, cancer advocates and politicians convened to inform political leaders of the escalating global problem of cervical cancer.

Our mission: Women around the globe deserve the right to equal health care. We need to work together and advocate for their health. Through aggressive political activism, we can improve education and awareness about cervical cancer—both in our local communities and around the world.

Cervical Cancer: By the Numbers

The numbers are staggering. The 2012 statistics from the International Agency for Research on Cancer found that:

  • Gynecologic cancers accounted for 16 percent of the 6.6 million estimated new cases of cancer and for 14 percent of the 3.5 million cancer-related deaths among women.
  • Cervical cancer, or cervix cancer, accounted for 527,000 new cases of cancer and for 239,000 deaths.
  • Cervix cancer is the fourth-leading cause of cancer-related death across the globe, and the number one cause of cancer-related death in Africa.

A Preventable Disease

Deaths from cervical cancer are even more tragic because cervical cancer is a preventable, treatable disease. By combining HPV vaccine and regular Pap testing, we can eradicate cervical cancer. The vaccine can prevent the disease from developing in the first place; routine Pap testing helps doctors catch it in its early, most treatable stage. Every woman—whether they live next door to us or across the world—should have access to preventive care.

 GAVI: Bringing Vaccines to the People Who Need Them

Using the HPV vaccine to prevent cervix cancer is one of the best strategies to address the problem, particularly for low-income countries. The Global Alliance for Vaccine Introductionk (GAVI) was created in 2000 with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. GAVI brings together key UN agencies, governments, the vaccine industry and the private sector to improve childhood immunization coverage in poor countries. This alliance has been instrumental in providing discounted vaccines to those countries with the greatest need.

HPV Vaccine: Compliance is Crucial

Unfortunately, even in America, where the HPV vaccine is readily available, we are far from full compliance, leaving girls and young women unprotected. The vaccine is recommended for girls and boys aged 11-13, given as three injections over a six month period. Unfortunately, only one-third of eligible girls has received all three doses of HPV vaccine in the U.S. The lack of compliance increases among underserved groups such as African-Americans.

The U.S. success with the HPV vaccine program has been less than ideal compared to Australia, where more than 70 percent of eligible girls have received the complete vaccine series.

But Is the HPV Vaccine Safe? (Yes!)

There is a public mistrust of the HPV vaccine, fueled by misleading information. The most common side effects associated with HPV vaccine are similar to side effects from other vaccines, including:

  • Redness or pain at the injection site
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Muscle or joint pain

The Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration have set up several monitoring systems for oversight. The Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) is the CDC’s national database that accumulates data on adverse side effects associated with the HPV vaccine. An analysis of severe events (including death, Guillain-Barre syndrome and autoimmune disorders) determined that these conditions were not caused by the HPV vaccine. The incidences of these events occurred in a range that would be expected, given a large population of young girls that has received more than 70 million vaccines to date.

In order to optimize public opinion, it’s important to clarify additional misperceptions.

  • HPV infection is:
    • Common, affecting nine in 10 people during their lifetime (14 million people per year in the U.S.).
    • Associated with the development of changes in a person’s cells that may lead to cervix cancer.
  • The HPV vaccine:
    • Is effective as a preventive tool, but only minimally effective as a therapeutic tool in patients already exposed to HPV
    • Does not promote promiscuous behavior
    • Does not cause infertility

Working Together To Eradicate Cervix Cancer

We need to spread the word about this preventable disease. Our educational strategies should focus on risk reduction, screening, prevention and seeking specialty care for an accurate diagnosis of the disease. Using social media and other forms of communication, we have an unprecedented opportunity to have a quick and effective impact on women around the world.

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