Cervical Cancer Death Rates Higher Than Previously Thought, Research Shows

The startling figures point to the importance of HPV vaccination and routine screening.

A gynecologist taking notes on a notepad at her desk.

The death rate from cervical cancer is actually higher among American women than previously thought, according to a study published in January 2017 in the journal Cancer. The difference in death rates between white women and Black women is also much wider than expected.

To complete the study, researchers gathered information on cervical cancer deaths from 2000 to 2012 using data from the National Center for Health Statistics. They determined mortality rates according to age, state, race and the year that each woman passed away.

Researchers then took one extra step that set this study apart from previous ones: They figured out how many women had undergone a hysterectomy and took them out of the equation. Why? A hysterectomy involves removing a woman’s uterus and, most often, her cervix as well. Without a cervix, she can’t develop cervical cancer.

“We don’t include men in our calculation because they are not at risk for cervical cancer,” explained head researcher Anne Rositch, PhD, in an interview with The New York Times. “If we want to look at how well our programs are doing, we have to look at the women we’re targeting.”

The results were startling: Mortality rates from cervical cancer were higher across all ages and races than past estimates had suggested. What’s more, the difference in death rates between white women and Black women had been underestimated by 44 percent.

  • For every 100,000 white women, 4.7 had died from cervical cancer—that’s 47 percent higher than prior estimates.
  • For every 100,000 Black women, 10 had died—that’s 77 percent higher than previously thought.

The most staggering rate was among Black women over age 85, who experienced 37.2 deaths per every 100,000 women.

According to researchers, mortality rates for Black women in the United States are similar to those of developing nations like some in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. But with the medical resources, vaccines and screening services available in the U.S., no woman should die from cervical cancer.

In fact, it’s possible to avoid a diagnosis by receiving the HPV vaccine, which protects against the virus that usually causes cervical cancer. Thankfully, it’s easier than ever to get vaccinated:

  • It's recommended that all girls and boys receive the two-dose vaccine between the ages of 9 and 12, with the first dose coming at age 9 or 10. (Boys should get the vaccine, too, in part because certain strains of HPV can also lead to cancers of the head, neck, penis and anus.) Three shots are still needed if you start the series between age 15 and 26.
  • Women (and men) who have not previously been vaccinated can receive the vaccine up to age 26, but being vaccinated at older ages is less effective for lowering cancer risk. In special circumstances, an HCP may recommend receiving the vaccine up until age 45.
  • The National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics may offer no-cost vaccination services near you.

It’s also possible to access free cervical cancer screenings, which can pick up on the disease early, while it’s still highly treatable. Use this interactive map from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to locate no-cost women’s health services in your area.

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