Cervical cancer once was a leading cause of death for women in the United States, but thanks to the widespread use of Pap tests beginning in the 1950s, it's a disease that has become relatively rare here. That's not the case in poorer and developing countries where Pap tests are simply unavailable, and even if they were accessible, there is a shortage of pathologists available to interpret test results.
In 2005, the latest figures available, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) estimates about 11,150 U.S. women were diagnosed with cervical cancer, and 3,924 women died from the disease, about 2.5 percent of all cancer deaths among women.
In certain populations and geographic areas of the United States, however, cervical cancer death rates are still high, in large part due to limited access to health care and cervical cancer screening. Worldwide, especially in middle and low income countries, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women, and the third most frequent cause of cancer death, accounting for nearly 300,000 deaths annually, the NCI says.
For example, in 2008, a study conducted by the Sabin Vaccine Institute, the Pan American Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others, compiled 15 years of research in what was the first major assessment of the effects of the human papillomavirus in the Caribbean and Latin America where as many as 33,000 deaths annually from cervical cancer are reported. According to its author, better screening and an affordable vaccine for girls could reduce those deaths, which could increase to 70,000 a year by 2030 without intervention.
Virtually all cervical cancer cases (99 percent) are linked to genital infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the most common viral infection of the reproductive tract, infecting 20 percent to 30 percent of young women in the region, as well as 20 percent of young men.
Compared to the U.S. where cervical cancer death is less than 3 percent, in Haiti, as one example, 49 percent of all cancer deaths among women is from cervical cancer.