As cervical cancer rates tick up, experts cite links to abstinence-only sex education

Cases of late-stage cervical cancer are growing in the United States. Where are these cancers increasing? Southern women and women in their 30s and 40s.

The overall number of cervical cancer cases is on the decline, but the number of advanced cases of cervical cancer are increasing, especially among younger women, according to a study recently published by the University of California Los Angeles.

Researchers at the UCLA Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology observed data from 2001 to 2018 and found a 1.3% increase per year in advanced stages of cervical cancer. The group that saw the largest increase in advanced cervical cancer were Southern white women aged 40 to 44, among whom cases went up 4.5% annually.

Another study published in the International Journal of Gynecological Cancer found a 3.39% increase in late-stage cervical cancer per year in women ages 30-34 from 2001 to 2017.

Stage 4 cervical cancer has a 5-year survival rate of 17%. If detected early, cervical cancer has a five-year survival rate of 90 percent. Regular HPV screenings and pap smears, which can detect precancerous cells on the cervix can also help to prevent cervical cancer.

The study doesn’t consider how the pandemic affected routine healthcare visits like well-woman visits for pap smears and STIs testing.

“I worry that the last two years people have had a lot of barriers of accessing heath care. I think we might see this trend get a little worse before it gets better,” Dr. Alex Francoeur, a fourth year OB-GYN resident at UCLA told NPR.

Some doctors believe skipping regular cervical cancer screenings could have cause this uptick in cases. Other evidence points to higher cervical cancer rates in states where women and girls are the less likely to have received the HPV vaccine.

Despite medical advances like pap smears and the HPV vaccine, high rates of cervical cancer persist in the South. In a 65-page report, the nonprofit group Human Rights Watch emphasized the high rates of cervical cancer-related deaths and sexually transmitted infections are a “human rights failure.” The authors of the report cite Alabama’s emphasis on abstinence-only sex education in schools, gynecologist shortages in rural areas and the state’s failure to expand Medicaid as contributing factors.

Southern states have long had low rates of teens vaccinated against HPV, despite evidence that shows the 87 percent fewer cases of cervical cancer in women who were vaccinated at age 12 or 13. The HPV vaccine is not required for students to attend school in America, except for a handful of school districts.

The good news is that now women and men up to age 45 can get the HPV vaccine. Many health departments offer the vaccine for free. You can also get a vaccine at your local pharmacy or even at Walmart if you don’t have a primary care doctor.

If you don’t have insurance, but know you need a pap smear, you can get one for free at your local health department or family planning clinic like Planned Parenthood.

Anna Beahm

Anna Beahm |

I report on the intersection of religion and sexuality in America. Follow me on Twitter @_AnnaBeahm

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