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Improvements in Cervical Cancer Testing Needed

Cervical Cancer Nearly Preventable by Widespread Use of Pap Test, Says Nonprofit Group
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WebMD Health News

Jan. 13, 2005 -- America's health professionals generally do a good job of screening for cervical cancer, but they could do even better, says Women In Government, a nonprofit lobbying group.

All states have a significant opportunity to improve their performance in cervical cancer prevention by making screening a legislative and public health priority, says a report by the group.

In the U.S., cervical cancer is the third most common reproductive tract cancer; in some parts of the world it is still considered the most common cancer in women. The most common cause of this cancer is infection from certain types of the human papillomavirus (HPV) that prompt abnormal changes in cervical cells.

Medical experts know the cause, and technology exists for screening. With widespread access to and utilization of screening services, this disease is almost preventable, they write.

The American Cancer Society predicts that 10,370 American women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer this year and that about 3,700 will die of the disease.

The Pap test is routinely used to screen for cervical cancer. It involves taking a sample of cervical cells and looking for early signs of abnormalities. It has had major success in screening for and prevention of the disease. Since initiating Pap screening programs, cervical cancer death rates have decreased by 75% in the U.S.

The Pap screening method works. In women screened periodically, Pap smears identity between 50% and 85% of cervical cancer or early signs of the disease, according to the report.

A test can also detect HPV infection and determine what type of HPV is present. The testing might further help reduce the rates of cervical cancer.

Since the HPV virus is sexually transmitted, women are advised to start Pap screening within three years after becoming sexually active or by age 21, whichever comes first. Most cervical cancer patients are in their 40s and 50s.

Recently, Women in Government released "A Call to Action: The 'State' of Cervical Cancer Prevention in America." The report's publication was facilitated by Digene, which makes an HPV test.

Grading the States

All states do a fair, good, or very good job of testing for cervical cancer, but none earned an "excellent" rating, says the report.

The state rankings were based on rates of cervical cancer and deaths from the disease, access to and utilization of tests, and policies. Four states -- Massachusetts, Illinois, Maryland, and North Carolina -- earned a "very good" rating. A "good" grade went to 26 states, while 21 states were rated as "fair."

Massachusetts had the highest score. Tennessee and Texas scored lowest, following Wyoming and Nevada, although these states all received "fair" grades.

Geographic Differences

Screening rates varied from state to state. For instance, the percentage of women aged 18-64 who reported being screened within the last three years varied from 77% to 89%. Women aged 18-64 have the highest cervical cancer risk.

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