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Cervical Cancer Awareness bracelet.

The National Lieutenant Governor Association is distributing educational brochures and bead kits that can be assembled into HPV and cervical cancer awareness bracelets in Minnesota and 10 other states.

Spreading the word about HPV and cervical cancer

By Pauline Oo

Jan. 19, 2007; updated Feb. 14, 2007

Eleven of the nation's second-in-commands, including Minnesota Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, have joined forces to educate the public about the highly preventable nature of cervical cancer and its direct link to a certain virus--the human papillomavirus (HPV), a focus of University research.

Molnau officially kicked off the National Lieutenant Governor Association's "Ending Cervical Cancer in Our Lifetime: Make the Connection" campaign on Jan. 18 in Sanford Hall on the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis. It was a particularly appropriate setting since women of undergraduate age are the target audience. Molnau was joined by Levi Downs, a researcher with the University of Minnesota Medical School and Cancer Center; Amy Clute, a leading member of the student organization SHADE (Sexual Health Awareness and Disease Education); and Margaret Sughrue Carlson, chief executive officer of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association.

"I learned about [HPV] from friends and students coming to me with questions [such as] how do I get this and what do I tell my sexual partner," says Clute, a senior majoring in family social science and psychology. "[As a peer educator with SHADE], I feel like a surrogate parent, and like parents, I want to give them the information that they need. The age that HPV typically strikes is late teens and early 20s--that's the undergraduate population here at the U. I hope this campaign can create a national dialogue [about HPV and the risks and treatment options available for cervical cancer]."

About 11,150 women in the United States are expected to develop cervical cancer this year, reports the National Cancer Institute, and 3,700 of them will die from the disease. In Minnesota, about 200 women are diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer each year.

January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month

Listen to Levi Downs, Cancer Center researcher, discuss the link between the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus and cervical cancer on University of Minnesota Moment.

Also, hear Kristin Anderson, cancer epidemiologist, talk about the risk factors and preventive measures for cervical cancer.

A new vaccine called Gardasil, recently approved by the FDA, holds the promise of changing this scenario. The vaccine, licensed for use in females aged 9 through 26, can prevent the HPV infections that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers, says Downs, who is also an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the U.

HPV is a common virus generally transmitted through any kind of genital contact. Most sexually active adults will be infected with HPV at some point in their life--each year about 6.2 million people in the United States become infected with HPV, making it the most common sexually transmitted infection. The HPV virus doesn't show any signs of infection and can harbor in a women's body for years before revealing itself; only a woman's yearly Pap test can detect the abnormal cells.

"The vaccine that is currently FDA-approved is an attempt to vaccinate girls between the ages of 9 and 13, before sexual activity begins," says Downs. "There is also a recommendation for girls and women between 13 and 25 to get vaccinated. There is not a lot of research of the benefits of vaccine for [women 26 years and older]." But, adds Downs, "every woman, regardless of age, should discuss the vaccine option with their parent or physician."

Cervarix, a vaccine that immunizes against the same cancer-causing strains of HPV as Gardasil, was recently tested at the University of Minnesota as part of worldwide clinical trials and will be available in mid-2007. Downs and his colleagues are preparing to test a next-generation version of Gardasil that would get at the HPV types that cause the remaining 30 percent of cervical cancers. This version would protect against eight types of HPV. Clinical trials will begin at University of Minnesota this year.

What is cervical cancer?

Cancer of the cervix, a.k.a cervical cancer, begins in the lining of the cervix, the lower part of the uterus (womb). Virtually all these cancers are caused by a sexually transmitted disease called the human papillomavirus (HPV), which triggers the growth of abnormal cells on the cervix (cervical dysplasia) that can evolve into cervical cancer if left untreated.

Regular Pap tests or Pap smears (a procedure in which cells are scraped from the cervix and looked at under a microscope), can turn up these abnormal cells. Women are encouraged to get annual Pap smears within three years of starting sexual intercourse or when they turn 21.

To learn more about HPV and cervical cancer, visit the University of Minnesota Cancer Center.

As part of the public awareness campaign, the lieutenant governor of each state--Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Utah and Virginia--will distribute a total of 82,000 educational brochures and bead kits that can be assembled into "Make the Connection" awareness bracelets.

"We want you to know that this is a threat to your daughters, granddaughters, wives, mothers and sisters," says Lt. Gov. Molnau. "[Cervical cancer] is a scary disease because it's hidden, mysterious and deadly. It really thrives on ignorance, and today we're here to make people aware of it. No one should die through cervical cancer."

Merck, Inc. is funding the campaign. For more information on cervical cancer prevention, visit www.maketheconnection.org or the University of Minnesota Cancer center.


Further reading Cervical Cancer: A New Vaccine and a Brighter Future Regular Pap Smears Help Ensure Women's Health