Healthier Me: The importance of cervical screenings and HPV vaccines

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said Dr. Jacobson. The numbers are shocking!

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about 79 million Americans currently have Human Papillomavirus, or HPV, but many people with the virus don't know they are infected.

"Over the last 30 years we've decreased cervical cancer rates in our country by more than half because of screening, " said Sanford Women's OB/GYN Dr. Tamara Jacobson.

January is cervical health awareness month. The National Cervical Cancer Coalition says nearly 13,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, but the disease is preventable with vaccination and screening

"Pap smears are very good at looking for abnormal cells and HPV, which is the virus that causes cervical cancer," said Dr. Jacobson.

Health officials say it's not just women who need to pay attention to this silent killer.

"Most people at some point in their life, up to 90 percent, are going to be exposed to HPV," said Dr. Jacobson.

Currently, there is no HPV test recommended for men. The only approved HPV tests are pap smears for women. So getting the vaccine is your best source of protection.

"The HPV vaccine is really important because we have definitely seen a decrease in abnormal cells, as well as precancer and cervical cancer, after the HPV vaccine came into use in the early 2000's and late 90's," said Dr. Jacobson.

While the vaccine isn't required, it's recommended that children get it between ages 9 to 11, so they're fully protected before they become sexually active. Even if your children are older than that, health officials say there's still time.

"If you haven't received the HPV vaccine, you can actually get that vaccine all the way up to age 26 as a catch up vaccine," said Dr. Jacobson.

The CDC recommends two vaccine doses for ages 9 through 14. Teens and young adults who start the series at ages 15 through 26, need three doses of the HPV vaccine.