Cervical Cancer: Hopefully a Relic of the Past

Last night on an episode of Showtime's Masters of Sex, a drama focused on the research of Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the early work to encourage uptake of the now ubiquitous pap smear was portrayed. This test, developed by Dr. Georgios Papanikolaou, has proved to be essential in early detection of cervical cancer, whose cause is chiefly the human papilloma virus (HPV). 

In the episode a physician--played by Julianne Nicholson--is an early promoter of the procedure who is, herself, dying from cervical cancer. 

It is largely due to the early detection of cervical cancer via routine pap smears that such deaths are almost a relic of the past in the US. However, approximately 4000 deaths per year in the US are attributed to cervical cancer. 

Vaccines against HPV, as a supplement to routine pap screening, offer the promise of further decreasing the burden of cervical cancer. Currently, two vaccines are available: Merck's Gardasil and GSK's Cervarix. Both vaccines protect against the most common cancer causing strains of HPV while Gardasil offers additional protection against strains of HPV that cause genital warts. The vaccines likely offer protection against other HPV-caused cancers (vulva, vagina, anus, oropharyngeal) and are now part of routine childhood immunization schedules after much political wrangling (see Three Shots at Prevention: The HPV Vaccine and the Politics of Medicine's Simple Solution).