Cervical cancer rates are rising among women in their 20s and 30s, according to a new study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study found that cervical cancer incidence rates increased by 2% per year among women ages 20-24 and by 3% per year among women in their 30s from 2012 to 2019.
HPV Vaccination Rates Remain Low
Public health experts attribute the rising cervical cancer rates primarily to persistently low rates of HPV vaccination. The HPV vaccine protects against the strains of human papillomavirus that cause nearly all cervical cancer cases. However, HPV vaccination rates remain below targets in many countries around the world.
In the United States, only 57% of adolescents were up to date on HPV vaccinations in 2021. Rates were even lower in several European and African countries. Reasons for the lagging vaccination rates include:
Lack of education and awareness: Many parents and physicians still do not understand the importance of the HPV vaccine for cancer prevention. There is a need for wider promotion of the vaccine’s benefits.
Barriers to access: The HPV vaccine requires multiple doses over 6-12 months, which poses logistical challenges in some areas. The vaccine is also more expensive than others.
Cultural stigma: Discussions around HPV and sexual activity remain taboo in some cultures, causing reluctance around vaccination of pre-teens.
Table 1: HPV Vaccination Rates by Country
|% Adolescents with Completed HPV Vaccination Series
Data sources: estimates published 2021-2022
Cervical Cancer is Largely Preventable
Public health experts emphasize that rising cervical cancer rates are tragic given that cervical cancer is one of the most preventable forms of cancer. Widespread HPV vaccination and cervical cancer screening could essentially eliminate cervical cancer worldwide.
“Unlike other cancers, we actually have all the tools we need to prevent cervical cancer cases and deaths…This really calls for a re-envisioning of what it’s going to take to equitably distribute the tools we have,” said Dr. Nicole Gastala, an gynecologic oncologist at Harvard.
The urgency of more concerted global action is amplified by the fact that cervical cancer disproportionately impacts women in lower-income regions. More than 85% of the over 300,000 women who die from cervical cancer each year live in low- and middle-income countries:
Data source: The World Health Organization
Reducing Stigma is Key
Beyond access barriers, reducing the cultural stigma around HPV and cervical cancer is also vital for improving prevention and treatment. HPV disproportionately impacts women, yet female cancers often carry societal shame and stigma.
Cervical cancer survivor Priyanka Mukherjee shared her personal experience battling stigma after her cervical cancer diagnosis:
“Cervical cancer was a dirty secret. Having HPV somehow meant I was promiscuous,” she said. “But HPV is complex. It’s not as simple as making bad choices.”
Similarly, Australian cervical cancer advocate Adelle Ingram highlighted the ‘culture of blame’ often directed at women with HPV. Educational campaigns are aiming to improve public understanding and counteract this stigma.
Call for Re-Investment in Screening and Prevention
With cervical cancer cases and deaths rising after decades of progress, public health leaders argue it is time to re-double global commitments to screening and prevention efforts.
The United Nations has set goals to vaccinate 90% of girls worldwide against HPV by 2030 and to screen 70% of women for cervical cancer. Experts say achieving these targets can bring cervical cancer cases down dramatically. However, greater political will and funding are urgently needed to make progress toward these goals and end the epidemic of preventable suffering from cervical cancer.
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