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Cervical Cancer Health Center

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Another Sexually Transmitted Disease Linked to Cancer of the Cervix

WebMD Health News

Jan. 2, 2001 -- A common sexually transmitted infection may be an unrecognized cause of cancer of the cervix, the gateway to a woman's uterus.

Researchers have known for some time that the sexually transmitted disease known as human papillomavirus -- or HPV -- is a factor in a significant number of cervical cancer cases. Other factors that increase the risk of cervical cancer include having intercourse at a young age, having multiple sexual partners, and smoking.

Now, researchers from Finland have added one more potential risk factor to that list. Like HPV, the newcomer is a common sexually transmitted disease called chlamydia.

In a study of nearly 130 women who had been diagnosed with cervical cancer compared with women who had not, the researchers found a strong association between being infected with chlamydia and having a higher risk of developing cervical cancer.

Moreover, a report released recently by the CDC finds that chlamydia is the most commonly reported infection -- not just sexually transmitted disease, but infection -- in the U.S. An estimated 3 million new cases are reported each year, mostly among young people.

Given that, the new study raises troubling questions and suggests that people need to start paying more attention to chlamydia, which can go undiagnosed and untreated for years.

"The traditional complications of chlamydia have been pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility," says Jonathan Zenilman, MD. "The fact that it may be a direct cancer-causing agent or a cancer promoter just makes it all the more important," says Zenilman, associate professor of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Unfortunately, it's not known exactly how chlamydia may cause cancer, or if it even causes cancer on its own.

If it's not directly involved by itself, one possibility is that chlamydia may contribute to cancer by increasing the level of HPV in the body, since HPV is known to cause cancer. This is intriguing since many women who are infected with HPV never develop cervical cancer, and some researchers have speculated that some other factor is needed that works in combination with HPV to cause cancer to develop. Chlamydia could possibly be that other factor.

Another possibility is that the risk for cancer may be directly related to the length of time the person has been infected with chlamydia.

Zenilman says because of this latter possibility, the study is an important reminder of the need to protect against sexually transmitted disease by abstaining from sex or using condoms. Getting tested frequently also is important if you engage in high-risk behaviors or have multiple partners, factors that increase exposure to such diseases.

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