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Experts say if screening rate goals were achieved, cervical cancer could essentially be eliminated in the United States no later than 2046. Getty Images
  • Researchers say cervical cancer could be eliminated in the United States if 90 percent of women were screened for the disease.
  • The researchers say the screening rate is even more important than the HPV vaccine for reducing cervical cancer.
  • There’s no effective HPV screening test for men, so experts say it’s important for boys and men to get vaccinated.

Can cervical cancer be eliminated as a public health problem in the next 2 decades?

Authors of a new study say that under current World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, the disease could be essentially wiped out between 2038 and 2046.

The researchers add it’s possible to achieve this goal even more quickly, saving more than another 1,000 lives annually.

Scientists from Harvard and the Cancer Council New South Wales in Australia say current screening rates for human papillomavirus (HPV) — the main cause of cervical cancer — should be increased to at least 90 percent of females in the United States by the time they turn 26.

Currently, researchers estimate 14 percent of U.S. women never get screened.

“This is a cancer we know well,” Dr. Sharman L. Reed, an OB-GYN for Kaiser Permanente in Lakewood, Colorado, told Healthline.

“We can identify it early, eliminate it before it becomes invasive, and we have multiple effective means of monitoring a patient after treatment for recurrence. This is a preventable cancer,” she said.

The study’s researchers say pushing the screening rate up to 90 percent can avert an additional 1,400 to 2,088 additional cases of cervical cancer per year in the United States.

“Although HPV vaccination will be a major contributor to reducing cervical cancer over time, we found that in the immediate term, screening continues to play a critical role in reducing the burden of cervical cancer in (the) U.S.,” Emily Burger, PhD, a research scientist from the Center for Health Decision Science at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Massachusetts, said in a statement.

There are more than 100 varieties of HPV. It’s a common viral infection in both sexes.

In about 90 percent of cases, HPV disappears on its own within 2 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But without screenings, the disease can go undetected while being transmitted through sexual contact.

In addition, HPV-induced cancer often doesn’t show symptoms until it’s in the late stages.

“We know what causes cervical cancer, and through the development of effective vaccines, it can be prevented,” said Dr. Krishnansu Tewari, the director of gynecologic oncology at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine.

“More importantly — and this is what the Harvard study’s focus is on — cervical cancer can also be prevented through screening because there is a relatively long latency period between HPV infection and the development of invasive cancer, 10 to 15 years,” he said.

The WHO’s goal is to get the cervical cancer rate below four cases per 100,000 women worldwide.

The HPV vaccine is recommended in the United States for both girls and boys ages 11 to 12 and up to age 26 for “catch-up” vaccinations.

The new study estimates that under current vaccine rates, 75 percent of girls in the United States will be vaccinated by age 26, and 62 percent of boys will be vaccinated by age 21.

“The (future) model described in the research assumes that 90 percent of the population is vaccinated against most dangerous types of HPV and 90 percent of all women have a Pap smear every 3 years,” Dr. Alex Polyakov, a senior OB-GYN and lecturer at the University of Melbourne in Australia, told Healthline.

“The biggest obstacles to this optimistic scenario are barriers to both vaccination and Pap smear screening. There are costs associated with both. There is also an active anti-vaccination movement in some parts of the community, which is strongly opposed to HPV vaccination,” he said.

Those issues aren’t just restricted to the United States.

“Eliminating cervical cancer in the United States will be an easier task as compared to the rest of the world,” Dr. G. Thomas Ruiz, an OB-GYN at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in California, told Healthline.

“The majority of people in the United States have access to the HPV vaccine as children, and there is also readily available access to clinics that provide Pap smears,” he said.

“We do have challenges in some lower socioeconomic and rural areas getting women the access they need for cervical cancer screening,” Ruiz added.

“Worldwide, the access is more difficult, especially in underdeveloped nations where healthcare access is not readily available. In Third World countries, cervical cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer deaths,” he said.

HPV also increases a man’s chances of developing genital cancers. More than half of sexually active men will contract HPV during their lifetime, according to the CDC.

There’s no effective way to screen men for HPV, although they can be vaccinated.

“There are other cancers that are not as common as cervical cancer but which are also mostly caused by HPV infections. Those include cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and oropharynx,” Polyakov said.

“Between 60 and 95 percent of these cancers are caused by HPV. An additional benefit of vaccination is that the majority of these cancers will also be prevented if vaccination rate is sufficiently high,” he said.

As with so many potential health issues, getting ahead of potential problems is key.

“No one enjoys coming in for a dentist visit. Much the same, no one enjoys going in for their Pap smear, but it is imperative,” Reed said.

“Screenings and vaccines save lives. The great news for cervical cancer is that it’s preventable. We have a vaccine that can prevent cancer. It’s miraculous.”