The column by Pat LaMarche on March 10, “Cervical cancer an avoidable tragedy,” sounded all too familiar. I also lost a friend to cervical cancer. She was only 40 years old. It was a deeply saddening experience to see her die from something that so easily could have been prevented.
Cervical cancer, a major health problem, remains a leading cause of cancer deaths in women worldwide. In 2002, some 270,000 women died from it. It used to be the No. 1 cause of cancer death for women in the United States, but in the past 40 years the number of cases of the disease has declined significantly.
But this form of cancer is still a mortal threat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2006, 11,982 women in the United States were diagnosed with cervical cancer, and 3,976 of them died from the disease. Every year in our country, more than $2 billion is spent on the treatment of cervical cancer.
For all women, prevention and early detection of the disease should be critical concerns; and all women need to know the facts.
Ms. LaMarche emphasized the importance of annual Pap tests to detect pre-cancerous cells that may become cancerous in the future. That is certainly good advice. Women should have regular Pap tests by age 21 at the latest, and all women under 30 should be screened at least every two years.
There is another highly effective tool in the fight against this disease that Ms. LaMarche failed to mention. We now have excellent vaccines to prevent HPV — the human papillomavirus, which is the primary cause of cervical cancer.
Last October, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of Cervarix for girls and young women age 10 to 25. Cervarix protects against the two cancer-causing HPV strains. The vaccine now is readily available and usually covered by health insurance. It has been cleared for routine use for girls by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, part of the CDC.
Gardasil, produced by Merck & Co., is a vaccine that can only prevent, not treat, HPV infections, so to be effective it must be given before infection occurs. The FDA recommends Gardasil vaccination before adolescence and potential sexual activity. In 2006, the vaccine won FDA approval for use in girls and women up to age 26.
HPV is a highly common, sexually transmitted virus that usually goes away by itself without treatment or symptoms. According to the CDC, approximately 20 million Americans are infected with HPV; and at least half of all sexually active people will have the virus at some point in their lives. For 90 percent of infected women, the virus is naturally cleared by the body and becomes undetectable within two years. However, persistent infection with high-risk types of HPV can cause cell changes, which if left untreated, can lead to cervical cancer.
I have been involved in the campaign against cervical cancer for five years as a member of Women in Government, a national organization of women legislators; this year I am serving as vice chair.
Women in Government’s fight against this deadly disease began in 2004, when it launched the Challenge to Eliminate Cervical Cancer Campaign to bring policy and awareness initiatives to all parts of the nation. In the last six years, all 50 states have introduced and enacted legislation aimed at the elimination of cervical cancer, from creating prevention task forces to enhancing access to screenings and vaccines to mobilizing efforts to reach underserved populations.
In recent years, there has been a clear reduction of cervical cancer incidence across the U.S. In Maine, we saw a 33 percent drop from 1990 to 2003, thanks to the state’s proactive approach. In 2005, the Legislature stepped up the effort by establishing the Task Force to Study Cervical Cancer Prevention, Detection and Education.
The recommendations of the task force reflect the state’s continuing effort to eliminate cervical cancer. Several programs within the Department of Health and Human Services and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention dedicate time and resources to cervical cancer-related education and intervention.
These programs include the Maine Breast and Cervical Health Program, which provides breast and cervical cancer screening and diagnosis services to low-income and underserved women. It also provides public and professional education and supports community partnerships to enhance statewide cancer control activities.
We have come a long way since the 1950s, when widespread use of the Pap test began to arrest the advance of cervical cancer. As the knowledge and resources surrounding this disease change, so must the efforts put forth in regard to education, prevention and detection. While Maine is doing relatively well on this front, there remains an opportunity for the state to further reduce the rate of cervical cancer, especially considering the effectiveness of the HPV vaccines. Our goal should be the complete eradication of cervical cancer in Maine.
Kimberley Rosen, R-Bucksport, represents District 40 in the Maine House of Representatives. She serves on the Transportation Committee.