Featured, Women Only

Getting “Shot” May Save Your Life

HPV2

As kids, visits to the pediatrician weren’t our idea of a weekend treat. The scent of sanitized hospital halls filled us with dreadful thoughts of getting poked at all the wrong places in our anatomy. These childhood memories are revisited when we see bawling children get vaccine shots. Needless to say, none of us grew up with fondness for injections or anything that may give us of pain. Also, health concerns are the farthest things from our minds, which are usually cluttered with the typical interests of college students.

We could say that our youth provides us with a sense of “invincibility.” Apart from occasional bouts with common colds and fever, there aren’t too many health issues we need to contend with. However we are human, and age does not give immunity from sickness or disease. The cancer wards of children’s hospitals provide us with a sobering reminder that diseases like cancer, could affect anyone young or old. Now, we may argue that the health junkies among us make an effort to eat right, exercise and take their vitamins just so they could prolong their “boring” existence. Are these efforts enough though?

Modern medicine is constantly developing ways to combat life threatening diseases. Despite these innovative approaches, doctors still agree that prevention is far better than treatment. However, disease prevention still entails the use of a method we dreaded as children – the administration of vaccines. Babies born these days are given nearly twice the amount of vaccines we received. Adult vaccines for flu, chicken pox, and others are available. Despite the benefits, many of us don’t make efforts to get them simply because of the physical and monetary pains they’ll cause us.

However, vaccines have proven effective in preventing one type of disease that affects women – cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is a disease that affects the cervix of the female reproductive system. If you’re a little rusty on Biology, the cervix is the lower portion of the uterus, and is approximately two inches long and tubular in shape. It allows the passage of menstrual fluid from the uterus. It is the same “canal” through which the sperm travels to reach the uterus. It also widens during child birth to allow the passage of the baby.

The cervix is vulnerable to several health conditions such as polyps (usually nonmalignant growth or tumor), dysplasia (abnormal  growth of tissues or cells) and cancer. The symptoms of such diseases in their early stages could rarely be detected.  A pap smear can help identify abnormal cervical changes way before they become cancerous.

You may have heard of pap smears from your mothers or grandmothers, but if you are unfamiliar with the procedure, here’s what to expect: You will be asked to lie on your back with feet in stirrups. A speculum will be inserted to into the vaginal canal allowing internal examination. The procedure only causes mild discomfort. A sample of cells will be taken through the use of a spatula. Again, this should only cause mild discomfort. The cells are then placed in a tube or on a slide with a preservative, and then sent to a lab for testing. You should receive the results in two weeks.

A pap smear is one of the means suggested to help prevent cervical cancer. In 2009, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommended that women should have their pap smear at age 21, or after they become sexually active (whichever comes first). Moreover, women in their 20’s should have a pap smear every two years instead of annually. There are also certain precautions you need to take to ensure that results are accurate.  Twenty four hours before the test, do not douche, use a tampon, have intercourse or bathe in a tub. These factors can actually produce false abnormalities.

It would also help if you schedule your pap smear around your menstrual cycle. During your period, blood and endometrial cells can affect the accuracy of the test as well. You would also need to tell your doctor if you are on birth control or are pregnant, as this could affect how the test is performed. Through the pap smear test, the number of cervical cancer cases has dropped over the past twenty years. However, many women still develop cervical cancer.

Two significant factors contribute to the development of cervical cancer: (1) HPV or Human Papillomavirus and (2) sexual history. HPV is a viral infection spread through sexual contact. If infected, signs and symptoms may take weeks, months and even years to appear. Symptoms may also never appear. Only an HPV test would reveal if a person has this. Samples of cervical cells are tested to identify high risk types of HPV strains. Although the HPV virus is spread through sexual contact, HPV tests have so far been developed only for women. There are no available HPV tests for men. Also, there is currently no cure for HPV.

These facts give much weight to doctors’ argument that prevention is better than treatment. The cervical cancer vaccine is recommended for girls ages 11 to 12, although it may be given to girls as young as age 9. It’s important for girls to receive the vaccine before they have sexual contact and are exposed to HPV. Once a girl or woman has been infected with HPV, the vaccine may not be as effective. Catch-up immunization is recommended for girls and women ages 13 to 26 who haven’t received the vaccine or who haven’t completed the full vaccine series.

Vaccines are given as a series of three injections over a six-month period. The second dose is given one to two months after the first dose, and the third dose is given six months after the first dose. The cervical cancer vaccine isn’t recommended for pregnant women or people who are moderately or severely ill. You would also need to tell your doctor if you have any severe allergies, including an allergy to yeast or latex.

The vaccine is administered in three doses because researchers don’t yet know what antibody levels provide adequate protection from HPV. Since antibody levels inevitably fall once you stop getting a vaccine, it makes sense to start with high antibody levels and attempt to get the greatest HPV protection for the longest possible time. Clinical trials of the vaccines have also found that they were effective in groups of sexually active women age 26 or younger, some of whom had already been infected with one or more types of HPV. However, they only protect women from specific strains of HPV to which they haven’t been exposed. Risks of exposure to multiple types of HPV increase with the number of sexual partners.

You may experience mild effects after the shot is administered. The most common side effects of include soreness at the injection site, headaches, low-grade fever or flu-like symptoms. Completing the series of vaccines however, will not exempt you from taking regular pap smear tests.  Routine screening for cervical cancer through regular pelvic exams and pap tests remains an essential part of a woman’s preventive health care. When it comes to disease prevention, the old adage “knowing is half the battle” certainly applies. It is worthwhile to consult your doctor about available vaccines to prevent cervical cancer, and to plan on getting these as soon as possible. Our efforts to take better care of ourselves now, may well contribute to the quality of life we’ll  have in years to come.