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What Women Don't Know May be Hurting Them

( - December 15, 2003) January is Cervical Cancer Awareness month and a great opportunity for women to become educated about their risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) as well as get screened for cancers that can result from untreated STDs.

STDs are rampant in the U.S. One in five people currently has an STD, at least one in three sexually active people will contract an STD before the age of 25 and women are disproportionately affected.

Unfortunately, since most women are less likely to experience symptoms of STDs, they are unlikely to be diagnosed until serious complications occur. This is especially true of Human Papillomavirus (HPV), the most common STD in the U.S. HPV is often asymptomatic, but it has been proven that HPV may be the leading cause of cervical cancer.

Women should also know that certain behaviors may put them at an increased risk of contracting HPV and, subsequently, developing cervical cancer: smoking, multiple sexual partners, or a partner with multiple sexual partners, and sexual intercourse at an early age increase a woman's risk of developing cervical cancer. And activities such as binge drinking, which could lead to multiple sex partners, can potentially increase a woman's risk of contracting an STD.

According to Mary Hunt, M.D., assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the New York University School of Medicine, even women in long-term monogamous relationships should not discount the importance of cervical cancer screening, as they may also be at risk for STDs.

"Couples shouldn't forget that even if they both tested negative for STDs before beginning a sexual relationship with each other, they may be putting each other at risk unknowingly," said Dr. Hunt. "And, because HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact rather than through the exchange of fluids, condoms cannot fully protect against the disease. Women need to take this into account to decrease their risk of developing cervical cancer."

Cervical Cancer Screening
There are a number of different screening methods available to help in the detection of cervical cancer, including the Pap smear and HPV DNA testing. The traditional Pap smear has been considered the "gold standard" in cervical cancer screening for more than 50 years. However, "false negatives" have been shown to appear in as many as 55 percent of Pap smears. In addition, the same women who are at risk for "false negative" Pap smears may also be at risk for " false negative" HPV tests.

Even with widespread access to cervical cancer screening, and potentially because of the inaccuracies of the traditional Pap smear, cervical cancer is still prevalent in this country. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be approximately 12,200 new cases of invasive cervical cancer in the U.S. this year, and one third of these women will die from the disease.

"Cervical cancer is a serious disease, but if it's caught early, it's one of the most successfully treated cancers," said Dr. Hunt. "It is therefore essential that women obtain the most accurate screening possible-the addition of PapSure(R) to a traditional screening may help to provide this."

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