It's Cervical Health Awareness Month: Are You Protecting Yours?

At age 22, the inter-workings of my cervix are not something I think about on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis.  Rather, the only time I really ponder it is at my yearly gynecological check up when I am having a surge of anxiety that something “down there” could be or might be wrong.

Although I work in the reproductive health, rights and justice field, and am pretty well versed in all things reproductive, I sometimes forget the real importance of the cervix itself.  For my generation, discussions about the cervix and cervical health are overshadowed by hype around the HPV vaccines and cervical cancer.  There is little knowledge about the cervix as part of women’s overall reproductive health and wellbeing.  However, I was recently reminded that January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, and decided to take this opportunity to find out why the cervix is important to reproductive health.  January was designated Cervical Health Awareness Month by the U.S. Congress as a means to raise awareness of this preventable disease and promote early detection through screening.

So why do we need to be aware of the cervix?  Here are a few of the cervix’s key functions: 1) allows the passage of menstrual fluid; 2) promotes fertility; 3) protects the uterus, upper reproductive tract, and a developing fetus from pathogens; and lastly, 4) plays a possible role in women’s sexual pleasure.  Clearly the cervix is an important part of women’s reproductive health and we want to keep it healthy, but in doing so we must also understand its health threats.  You are probably already aware of HPV and its relation to cervical cancer, but what people my age might not realize is that other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) also pose a huge risk to cervical health.  Gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and HIV are all bad news for the cervix, especially since the cervix acts as the primary site of infection.  Undetected Gonorrhea or Chlamydia can lead to long-term reproductive health problems, some as serious as infertility.

How can we maintain cervical health with all these threats?  Although the HPV vaccines, Cervarix and Gardasil, are the most widely touted methods for preventing cervical cancer and maintaining cervical health, there is another way to keep your cervix healthy- the Pap test (or pap smear). Since the existence of the Pap smear, deaths from cervical cancer have dropped 74%.  Although the Pap smear is not entirely full proof, and has its share of false positive and false negative readings, we cannot discount the importance of it as a screening tool.  Recently, ACOG reformed its guidelines to suggest that women should not start getting the pap test until age 21 and then continue to do so every other year until 30.  However, yearly visits to the gynecologist are still suggested.  Cervical health is not solely contingent on whether one has HPV, and yearly testing for STIs, including, Gonorrhea, Chlamydia and HIV are a necessary component to ensure your best cervical health.

With nearly 4,000 women dying every year of cervical cancer, and Chlamydia on the rise as one of the most common STIs, maintaining one’s cervical health is incredibly important.  Instead of using only one month to expand awareness of cervical health, we should use everyday to encourage women of all ages, and ourselves, to not only know the importance of the cervix, but also the ways to maintain a healthy cervix.  So what’s my new year’s resolution?  Easy, spreading the word about what it means to have a healthy cervix.

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