Cervical cancer kills nearly 1000 women in the UK every year with nearly 3000 new cases. One of the main risk factors is infection from HPV. Vaccinations are now available for young girls against HPV.
Cervical cancer is a malignant growth of the cervix uteri or surrounding cervical area. Symptoms are often not visible until the cancer is very advanced although some cases will present with vaginal bleeding or an odorous vaginal discharge. Due to the lack of clear symptoms women aged between 25 and 49 are invited for a smear test every 3 years.
The smear test involves taking a sample of cervical cells which are then tested for abnormalities. If abnormalities are found this is not necessarily indicative of cancer. If an abnormal smear is taken, the person will then visit a gynaecologist for a colposcopy which involves an internal vaginal examination. This can sometimes involve a biopsy which is where a sample of tissue is removed to examine under a microscope.
Cancer involves a change in the DNA so that cell replication and growth becomes unregulated. Causes of this are widespread and include Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), smoking, numbers of children and more. HPV is the biggest cause of cervical cancer with over 99% of cases being associated with an infection. HPV can lie dormant in mucous membranes of the body and eventually leads to cervical intraepithelial neoplasia which is the stage before cancer. HPV does not always cause cancer but it is a significant risk factor. HPV is spread through sexual intercourse and so women with multiple partners are most at risk.
Since September 2008 there has been a recent move to vaccinate girls aged 12-13 against two of the strains of HPV which are those thought to be involved in causing cancer. It involves three injections over a 6 month period given routinely in schools.
There has been some controversy over the new program. As with any vaccination there are also some possible side effects. Most of these are very mild and might include some mild flu like symptoms or swelling. However, there is also a very small chance that the vaccination could incur a more severe allergic reaction leading to anaphylactic shock. Particular to this vaccine there has been some worry that by giving a vaccine against a virus that is sexually transmitted it could encourage sexual promiscuity or apathy against sexually transmitted diseases. Some argue that the cost of the vaccination programme is not justifiable when infection could be prevented by safe sex practices.
A girl recently died suddenly after receiving the vaccination in a school in Coventry. As of yet there has been no confirmed link between the vaccine and her death but vaccination programs have been terminated until a result can be determined. Since the start of the programme 1.8 million girls have been given the vaccine and no other deaths have been reported. Other girls given the vaccine in the same school also reported side effects but none needed admitting to hospital. This has newly awakened the debate over the vaccine and whether it should really be given at all.
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