"Operation WIPE OUT Cervical Cancer" Works to Eliminate This Preventable Cancer

During January, Cervical Cancer Prevention Month, the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) is working toward meeting the goals of “Operation WIPE OUT Cervical Cancer Alabama.” Cervical cancer is caused by persistent infection from certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) virus. Eighty percent of women will be exposed to this very common virus at some point in their lifetime. Because HPV usually does not exhibit any symptoms, it is possible to have HPV without knowing it, and to unknowingly spread the virus to others. Cervical cancer is a preventable disease through HPV immunization, screening, and treatment of precancer.

Operation WIPE OUT" was launched last year in concert with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, TogetHER for Health, and other partners, in response to the Alabama's high rate of cervical cancer deaths coupled with the knowledge that this cancer can be eliminated.

To meet the goals of “Operation WIPE OUT Cervical Cancer Alabama,” ADPH is taking these actions to advance its goals:

1) Providing free HPV immunizations through the Vaccines for Children Program at each county health department, and various grant-funded vaccine for adults.

2) Providing free cervical cancer screenings for women who have a low income and are uninsured at each county health department.

3) Providing follow-up colposcopies at county health departments for women who need them.

HPV vaccination is recommended for males and females up to age 26. In the United States, boys and girls as early as 9 years of age should get the HPV vaccine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of Gardisil®9 for males and females ages 9 to 45. If you are ages 27 to 45, discuss your risks with your healthcare team. Together you can decide whether you should get the HPV vaccine. Boys should be vaccinated because the vaccine protects them from other HPV-associated cancers, such as cancer of mouth/throat, penile, and anal cancer. Women should start cervical cancer screening at 21 years of age, and if the results are abnormal, they should follow up with their healthcare provider for further tests and recommendations. If screening finds early evidence of HPV infection and/or abnormalities in the cervix, timely follow-up can prevent this disease from happening.

For more than 25 years, the Alabama Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program has provided free cervical cancer screening and diagnostic services to women who have no insurance and have a low income. ADPH clinicians screen all patients over 25 years old for HPV. In addition to the HPV/Pap test, senior nurse practitioners throughout the state are now performing colposcopies. A colposcopy is a procedure used to examine tissue on the cervix and vaginal wall to check for signs of cancerous or precancerous tissue.

Out of the 9,381 HPV tests ADPH performed last year, there was a 20 percent positivity rate. This is significant since 99.7 percent of all cervical cancer is related to high-risk HPV subtypes. Last fiscal year, 823 colposcopies were performed. After finding high-grade cancer lesions with colposcopy, ADPH has a referral base to send these patients for treatment, if needed. Treatment is provided through Medicaid for U.S. citizens and legal residents, which increases access to care for patients in rural, underserved areas of Alabama.

Through community-based outreach, education, and collaborative relationships with community organizations, Family Health Services staff emphasize focused goals of reducing cervical cancer morbidity and mortality through regular cervical cancer screening and preventing cervical cancer with HPV vaccine. The HPV vaccine, Gardisil®9, prevents most cervical cancers, as well as six HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers, and is available in all ADPH family planning clinics. During fiscal year 2023, the ADPH Family Planning Program provided, free of charge, 6,665 doses of HPV vaccine to 5,872 clients.

The services provided at county health departments are critical to help wipe out cervical cancer going forward. I encourage you to do your part by educating your loved ones about cervical cancer prevention and treatment. If we all come together to stop this disease, I have no doubt that Alabama will succeed in becoming the first state in the nation to eliminate cervical cancer as a public health threat.

For information about free screenings, contact your local county health department, call 1-877-252-3324, or go to Alabama Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program.

Scott Harris, M.D., M.P.H.
State Health Officer