ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month and it’s a good time to talk about how vaccines for the human papillomavirus (HPV) can help prevent cancer. It was once the leading cause of cancer death for women in the country. Now, thanks to cervical cancer screening and vaccination, it’s the most preventable of all female cancers.

About 79 million people in the U.S. are currently infected with HPV—a compelling reason to protect teens and preteens through vaccination. The CDC recommends the HPV vaccination for 11- and 12-year-old girls and boys, with doses starting as young as 9. Assistant Professor of Gynecologic Oncology at Albany Medical Center Dr. Benjamin Margolis says there can be hesitancy among parents. 

“It can be difficult for parents to think about vaccinating their children against something that is sexually transmitted, but the fact that it is essentially so widespread, it really makes that primary prevention so important,” he said.

Those who are not fully vaccinated, and who are infected with HPV are vulnerable to cervical cancer. “Most people will clear the HPV infection, about 80% to 90%, but in the 10% of those who the HPV infection sticks around, those are the people at risk to develop abnormalities in the cervix that can then progress to cancer.”

Early warning signs of cervical cancer include abnormal discharge, bleeding after sex, and bleeding between periods. Screenings should begin as early as age 21. The HPV test or the Pap test can find pre-cancer that is more treatable.

“Either by laser cryotherapy or removing the abnormal cells and then keeping a close eye on it,” explained Dr. Margolis. Once it becomes cervical cancer, treatments include surgery and/or chemotherapy and radiation. “Depending on the stage of presentation, one or the other might be more appropriate but most early stages of cervical cancer are very treatable with very high survival rates,” he said.

Smokers are twice as likely to get cervical cancer. Those with a weakened immune system and those who became sexually active at a young age are also at higher risk. There’s a disparity when it comes to who gets diagnosed at an early stage.

“People of color actually get diagnosed at later stages and even stage for stage suffer increased mortality. Recently, we’re starting to see that the rates of LGBT folks, they can have increased risk factors for cervical cancer. It’s really important to reach out to those communities and let those folks know that if you have a cervix, you need Pap smear and HPV screenings and you need to start thinking about cervical cancer,” he said.

The country has come a long way in HPV vaccination rates but there’s still a ways to go. Only 60% of adolescents have completed the three-dose vaccine series. The vaccine is up to 99% effective, and while it’s recommended for teens and pre-teens, the vaccine is FDA approved for those up to 45 years old.