After decades of decline, the rates of cervical cancer linked to human papillomavirus are increasing among women who have not been vaccinated against the virus.
Over 600,000 people in the United States are estimated to die from cancer in 2024, with lung, colorectal, and pancreas cancers claiming the greatest number of lives.
Since the mid-1970s, cervical cancer rates have decreased by more than half due to improved access to screening and treatment of precursor lesions. However, a new study published in the CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians suggests that cervical cancer is increasing again.
The decades-long decline was reversed among women aged 30–44 years. In this age group, the cervical cancer incidence increased by 1.7% per year from 2012 through 2019.
Meanwhile, declines have accelerated among younger generations who were exposed to the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which was first approved in the U.S. in 2006.
In women aged 20–24, invasive cervical cancer incidence dropped by 65% from 2012 to 2019 compared with 24% from 2005 to 2012.
As vaccinated women age, the protective HPV vaccine effect is carried forward into older age groups. Among women aged 25–29 years, cervical cancer rates decreased to 4.3 cases per 100,000 women in 2019, from about 5.5 per 100,000 from 2005 to 2016.
The link between HPV and cervical cancer
Most sexually active people will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives, usually without experiencing any symptoms. The immune system will normally clear HPV from the body.
However, persistent infection with high-risk HPV can cause the development of abnormal cells, which later become cancerous. About 95% of cervical cancers are caused by the persistent HPV infection of the cervix.
The vaccine is also recommended for everyone through age 26 years if not adequately vaccinated when younger. HPV vaccines prevent new infections but do not treat existing HPV infections or diseases.
In 2022, three in four (76%) adolescents in the U.S. had received at least one HPV vaccine dose, and 63% were up to date.
What are cervical cancer symptoms?
Recognizing cervical cancer symptoms is crucial to diagnose and treat the condition at an early stage. See a healthcare provider if you experience the following symptoms:
- Unusual bleeding between periods, after menopause, or after sexual intercourse.
- Increased or foul-smelling vaginal discharge.
- Persistent pain in the back, legs, or pelvis.
- Weight loss, fatigue, and loss of appetite.
- Vaginal discomfort.
- Swelling in the legs.
The study adds strong evidence that the HPV vaccine is effective against cervical cancer, the condition that is estimated to claim over 4,000 American women's lives in 2024.