cervical cancer

New vaccine is an important advance in stopping cervical and other HPV-related cancers

Gregory Curfman, MD

Assistant Professor of Medicine

Former Editor-in-Chief, Harvard Health Publishing

If you knew that a vaccine could prevent your daughter or son from developing a relatively common and potentially deadly cancer later in life, would you have her or him get it? Such a vaccine is available, and it’s about to get even better than it is now — but fewer than half of all teens have gotten it. The vaccine helps prevent infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV). It is responsible for cervical cancer, which strikes 12,000 women each year in the United States and kills 4,000. HPV also causes cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth, and throat. The vaccine, approved in 2006, attacks four types of HPV. The new one attacks nine types, and can help prevent most types of cervical cancer. Some parents worry that having their pre-teen daughters and sons vaccinated against HPV will nudge them into becoming sexually active or becoming sexually promiscuous. Studies, including a new one from Harvard, show that doesn’t happen.

Expert panel says healthy women don’t need yearly pelvic exam

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

The annual pelvic exam, an oft-dreaded part of preventive care for women, may become the as-needed pelvic exam, thanks to new guidelines from the American College of Physicians. For decades, doctors have believed this exam may detect problems like ovarian cancer or a bacterial infection even if a woman had no symptoms. But an expert panel appointed by the American College of Physicians now says that healthy, low-risk women do not need to have a pelvic exam every year. The exam isn’t very effective at finding problems like ovarian cancer or a vaginal infection, and it often causes discomfort and distress. Sometimes it also leads to surgery that is not needed. The new guidelines only apply to the pelvic exam, and only in healthy women.