Harvard Health Letter

The cervical cancer vaccine

A new vaccine promises to save lives, but won't replace the Pap test.

Cervical cancer once killed many American women — mothers, daughters, and wives. But over the past 30 years, the number of cervical cancer deaths in the United States has dropped by half. Today, fewer than 4,000 American women die each year from the disease.

The main reason for the decrease is the Papanicolou test, or "Pap smear," which is perhaps the most effective cancer-screening test we have. During a pelvic examination, the doctor uses a small brush to gently swipe the surface of the cervix, the necklike part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. The sample is then smeared — thus the nickname — onto a slide so it can be examined under a microscope to check for abnormal cervical cells that are cancerous or might become so. Under current guidelines, women should start getting regular Pap tests within three years after first having sexual intercourse, or at age 21, whichever comes first. Before their 30th birthdays, they're supposed to have the test every year — thereafter, just every two to three years, as long as they've had three normal tests in a row.

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »