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Latinas and Cervical Cancer Prevention

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A friend of mine was diagnosed with high-risk HPV when she was 22 years old. It was caught through a routine Pap test, and when a biopsy found the cells to be precancerous, she got the care she needed right away. Who knows what might have happened if she had waited any longer to have a screening?

Stories like this are all too common in our community. Latinas have the highest cervical cancer rates in the country and the third highest death rate from cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV, a very common sexually transmitted infection. There are hundreds of HPV types, but two of them, types 16 and 18, are responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. HPV is so common that most sexually active people should expect to be exposed to it and, if not vaccinated, infected by HPV at some point in their lives. There aren't any symptoms for high-risk types of HPV, so most people who have or have had HPV don't know it. Women usually learn they have it only after the results of an abnormal Pap test.

The good news is that cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers: when caught early, the five-year survival rate is nearly 100 percent. During National Cervical Cancer Awareness Month (January), it is important to remind women that the keys to combating cervical cancer are getting the HPV vaccination before sexual intimacy and getting routine screenings. Cervical cancer takes many years to develop, so regular Pap tests will help detect any precancerous or abnormal cells early enough to allow cervical cancer to be prevented.

The HPV vaccine is a major breakthrough in the fight to prevent cervical cancer and should be considered a routine, normal part of health care. It is a safe and effective FDA-approved vaccine that prevents most cases of cervical cancer and genital warts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has included the HPV vaccine in its list of recommended vaccines for girls aged 11-12 years and recommends that all girls and women ages nine to 26 get the vaccine. The American Cancer Society, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and Planned Parenthood support the CDC recommendation that girls get the HPV vaccine.

In addition to routine cervical cancer screening, the best way to protect young women from cervical cancer is to make sure they get vaccinated before they are at risk of infection. Vaccination before a person is at risk for HPV infection means vaccination must occur before sexual intimacy -- even before skin-to-skin contact. It's also extremely important to use condoms for intercourse, as they greatly reduce the risk of HPV.

Unfortunately, due to unequal access to health care, Latinas are more likely to develop and die of cervical cancer because they are less likely to have access to early screening and early treatment or be able to pay for the HPV vaccine. Planned Parenthood health centers offer affordable health care and confidential services like HPV vaccinations and Pap tests to women and teens. Many health insurance companies cover the vaccine, and some programs allow people without insurance to be vaccinated for little to no cost.

As the nation's leading women's health care provider and advocate, Planned Parenthood encourages every woman to visit her health care provider regularly to receive a preventive checkup that includes a cervical cancer screening. Planned Parenthood is serious about eliminating cervical cancer. In fact, in 2010, Planned Parenthood health centers provided nearly 34,000 HPV vaccinations and 770,000 Pap tests, which identified about 94,000 women who may be at risk of developing cervical cancer.

For more information on cervical cancer, HPV, and cancer screenings in English and Spanish, or to locate a Planned Parenthood health center, visit plannedparenthood.org and plannedparenthood.org/esp. The new year is the perfect time to focus on your health and schedule a checkup. With both the HPV vaccine and routine checkups, we can protect our health and that of the women in our lives.

Destiny Lopez is the director of Latino engagement for Planned Parenthood Federation of America