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Cervical cancer – are today’s young women at greater risk?

Posted Jul 01 2009 6:46pm

The trend towards ever-earlier first sexual experience is putting young women at a higher risk of cervical cancer, says immunologist and cervical cancer expert, Professor Margaret Stanley of the University of Cambridge.

In an article in the April 2009 issue of the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care, Professor Stanley explains that in teenagers the tissues of the cervix are still developing and are especially vulnerable to attack by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is known to be the main cause of cervical cancer. The virus, which is caught through sex, is very common, but can only cause harm if the body’s natural defences do not get rid of it (rather like a cold).

“It seems that the immaturity of the cervix in teenage girls makes it easier for HPV get into the cells and stay there,” says Professor Stanley. “Although it can take around 10 to 20 years for cervical cancer to develop, the stage is already set. If girls start having sex around 14 or 15, which is now quite common in the UK, in the next few years will we see more young women with cervical cancer?”

Professor Stanley points out that the UK cervical screening programme has been very successful in preventing cervical cancer. However, she is worried that the raising of the age at which women are called for their first smear in England, from 20 to 25 years, did not take into account more recent changes in sexual behaviour. “Were the studies able to allow for the lowering age at sexual debut which has been seen in the last 10 to 15 years? The effects of this greater risk may not become apparent for another few years yet. Until we are sure, I believe we should still be screening women under 25.”

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Tags: cause of cervical cancer, cervical screening programme, treatment of cervical cancer

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