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Cancer with a Viral Cause
Cervical cancer is somewhat unique in the medical world, being one of a small number of cancers which is caused by a viral infection. Several strains of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) are known to play a role in the development of the majority of cervical cancer cases. This discovery of a link between HPV and cervical cancer was of enormous significance to medical science – important enough to have earned Harald zur Hausen, the doctor who discovered the link, a Nobel prize for Physiology and Medicine in 2008.
Exposure to HPV usually triggers an immune response which clears the virus and prevents infection. In some women, however, the virus persists in the cervix for many years. Eventually the virus causes changes in cervical cells which in turn leads to the development of malignancy.
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HPV Vaccine Reduces Risk of Cervical Cancer
Due mostly to the introduction of cervical screening for women, the risk of death from cervical cancer has decreased greatly in recent decades. However, 11,000 women are still diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer in the U.S. each year, and almost 4,000 die. Globally, the annual death tally is well over 200,000.
The introduction of Gardasil, a vaccine designed to protect against HPV infection, is expected to reduce the incidence and death rate of HPV significantly over the next several decades. Gardasil provides protection against four strains of HPV, including two which are responsible for up to 70% of cervical cancer cases.
Currently Gardasil is indicated for girls and women between the ages of 9 and 26. The vaccine works best in people who have not yet been infected with HPV, and therefore it is preferential for girls to be vaccinated before they become sexually active.
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Other Research on Cervical Cancer Treatment
Current treatment for invasive cervical cancer (which has spread from the cervix) includes surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Surgery typically involves hysterectomy and is a particularly undesirable option as it precludes pregnancy in the future.
Regardless of prevention and treatment advances in research on cervical cancer, for adult women who were sexually active before the advent of Gardasil the best method of protection is regular cervical screening via Pap smear. Several studies have shown that delayed screening is the most significant risk factor associated with advanced cervical cancer.
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References and Further Reading
Chustecka, Z. Nobel-Winning Discovery of HPV–Cervical Cancer Link Already Having an Impact on Medicine. Medscape Medical News 2008. (may require free registration).